The weight of caring is great in Lila Savage’s “Say Say Say.”
The debut novel tells the story of a young caregiver, Ella. She helps a married couple, Jill and Bryn, each around the age of 60. Jill suffered from a car accident several years before that has left her with brain damage that is getting worse. She can barely speak or perform simple tasks and we’re unsure if she even recognizes her husband. Bryn is dutiful and masks his grief with the tenderness he shows his wife and stoic friendliness toward Ella.
The vantage point of the novel is Ella’s. The story darts between her job and her domestic life with her girlfriend, Alix. The relationship Ella has with her girlfriend is marked by a youthful ambivalence that stands in stark contrast to the dependency and commitment of Jill and Bryn’s marriage.
Ella is moved by Bryn’s total commitment to Jill, which causes her to reflect on her own complicated relationship with this family. She must adhere to strict professionalism, but she feels she can’t fulfill her role as a caregiver without violating the emotional barriers dictated by her job. This conundrum in turn makes her analyze her total position in life and what brought her to it.
Savage, who spent nearly a decade working as a caregiver herself, writes with elegant prose that is aided by penetrating insights into what it means to be in a “pink collar” profession. The novel is also a timely intergenerational exploration. Ella is a millennial in a situation faced by many people her age. She’s bright and artistic, but a lucrative career doesn’t appear to be in her future. Bryn and Jill are part of a growing number of Americans who have to rely on outside assistance to get by. Savage explores this wide gulf with sensitivity and nuance.
In the end, many readers will be glad this novel has a lot to say.