Garsee, Jeannine. 2009. Say the Word. Bloomsbury. 368 pages.
When the phone slashes a machete through my brain at six fifteen a.m. it can mean only one of two things: Dad somehow found out I was sucking face with Devon Connolly last night. Or somebody's dead.
The heroine of Say the Word is people-pleaser Shawna Gallagher. And no, her father isn't omniscient. The phone call is not good news. Her mother, her lesbian mother, the woman Shawna has been trained to hate, has had a stroke. She's dying. Remember that song in South Pacific, the one about where you have to be taught to hate? Well, Shawna's life has been like that. Her mom left her and her father when she was only six or seven. Left them for another woman. Left to have another family, a family with two little boys. Part of the anger is legitimate. I think it's only natural that that pain of being abandoned would translate into anger and bitterness. But for Shawna, the anger has been turned to hating her mother for being a lesbian. Her father, all her family really, has raised her to hate homosexuality. The words they speak, the words Shawna herself speaks are of that hate and anger. These words are ugly. These words are powerfully ugly.
Shawna has issues. Issues with her father. A man who is at times neglectful and ever-absent, and at other times controlling and manipulative. Issues with her mother. Her mother, when she visited her through the years, was equally neglectful. Out of touch with her daughter. Uncaring. She never tried to bridge the gap. It was always work, work, work. (Much like her father is all work, work, work.) Now, as a teen (16? 17?), she hasn't seen her mother in three or four years. And their last meeting, their last conversation was pure ugly. But she's dying. And she has to come to terms with that. The mother who has been so ignorable in life, becomes impossible to ignore in death. Did her mother's leaving have to do with her father? Or was she really so head-over-heels-in-love with another woman? Why didn't she try harder to have a relationship with her? What can Shawna learn about her mother from the other family? Can this other family help heal the pain? Can they help provide closure? Can she come to love and understand her mother...at last?
If the characters weren't so human, if they weren't so complexly drawn and brought to life, then this novel might be too issue-driven. A novel about all the shades of prejudice and discrimination. A novel about the inadequacies and injustices of life.
How her mother's life partner and her family are cut out of everything. No legal right to make decisions about her mother's treatment. No legal right to make the funeral arrangements. How her ex-husband, whom she hated, ruled and bullied and gloried in this horrible situation. Took advantage. True, some of this--most of this--could have been prevented if Shawna's mother had drawn up a a will and other legal papers. But she didn't foresee her own death--it was too unexpected, it was too sudden. And now it's too late.
What's right? What's wrong? Shawna has a sinking feeling that her father is wrong. Not just a little wrong, but unforgivably, undeniably wrong. Shawna sees how ugly her father can be, how horribly selfish and controlling he is. And seeing his ugliness makes her reflect on her own life.
Say the Word is about Shawna's coming of age. Her growing up and growing wise. In a way, to borrow from the Grinch, it is about Shawna's heart growing three sizes.
Say the Word is thoughtful and well-written.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews