Ella is a graduate art student nearing age 30. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner Alix, also an artist, who is more successful commercially than Ella. Both women consider their art important, but it is Ella who has to work at outside jobs to pay for rent and living expenses.
Ella works as a caregiver in several homes. She is privy to intimate details of the lives led by the people she cares for as well as family members who come and go. Her latest job is helping with a 60-year-old woman named Jill who has suffered for a decade from a head injury in an automobile accident. Her condition has deteriorated to the point that she has to be watched at all times. Bryn, her carpenter husband, has retired to care for his wife, but now he needs more relief than his son, an occasional visitor, can give.
Ella does everything right; she does anything Bryn asks her, but no more. She shares tea with Bryn and Jill during which Bryn and Ella have long discussions. Jill has lost the ability to feed herself, and Bryn and Ella have become used to Jill’s messiness and garbled chatter. The words “Say Say Say” from the title refer to the words Jill repeats endlessly.
Ella doesn’t clean because Bryn hasn’t asked her; her days consist of keeping Jill from leaving the house and turning off faucets after Jill has finished splashing in the sink. Ella doesn’t pry into Bryn’s life which only seems to involve leaving to shop; the rest of the time the two of them watch Jill and talk.
Ella is attracted to Bryn, even though she strives to remain faithful to her partner, Alix. The sexual tension between Ella and Bryn is strong, though, and there are hints that their mutual concern for Jill could lead to something else.
“Say Say Say” is not a book about the role of being a caretaker; it is a more a novel about Ella’s inward thoughts on her own life and her relationships to men, women and her art. During her time with Jill, Ella reflects seriously, and with great description, on the revelations she discovers about herself as a caretaker, friend, artist and partner.
This debut novel is by Lila Savage, a writer who participated in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, famous for the many authors who have also attended or taught there. Savage spent 10 years working as a caregiver herself, and she has managed to write well about a character figuring out life. It is noteworthy that Ella leaves this job having learned much about herself regarding kindness and effort. She also learns that sadness may leave an ache, but without the ache, she realizes no caring has occurred.