The Say So: A Novel
- By Julia Franks
- Hub City Press
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Sarahlyn Bruck
- August 3, 2023
Women confront unplanned pregnancies in this affecting dual-timeline tale.
Julia Franks is the award-winning author of Over the Plain Houses, which was named an NPR Best Book of 2016. Her second novel, The Say So, tells the story of two women dealing with unplanned pregnancies a quarter-century apart.
Part one begins in 1959 in a small town in North Carolina and continues in a linear fashion, alternating points of view among teenagers Edie, Luce, and Simon, Edie’s boyfriend. Edie unexpectedly gets pregnant; when her parents find out, they send her away to a home for unwed mothers, as many white, middle-class families opted to do at the time. It was a way to keep the pregnancy a secret and preserve the family’s reputation and the daughter’s future as a wife (first) and (then) mother.
Although her parents and the facility profess to want to protect her and find a suitable home for her child, Edie feels conflicted. She and Simon are in love. But if she follows her heart, she’ll be defying her parents and breaking some sort of societal code. Keeping the baby would be possible, she thinks, but only:
“…if we chose to live outside of everyday life, outside of family, of school friends, of the neighbors down the street, of jobs. And in that moment I heard it — saw it — as if it were an actual memory, or a brand-new photograph: me and Lindy and Simon, the three of us together without the cardboard waves ready to crash upon us. The words just came out by themselves. ‘Maybe it’s not — impossible. Maybe doing what they want is worse. I’m keeping [my baby] too.’ And right then I knew it was true.”
Luce, Edie’s best friend, was cast out of their high-school social circle after her parents’ divorce, but she’s smart and develops an interest in social justice. When Edie gets pregnant, Luce doesn’t understand why she’d wish to have the baby and risk becoming an outcast. Eventually, this incomprehension drives a wedge between them.
Franks paints a vivid picture of the world before the Pill and Roe v. Wade, when women enjoyed little reproductive freedom. She takes the reader inside the mind of Edie as she attempts to navigate this hostile landscape for herself and the unborn child she wants to keep. She also gives voice to Luce, who struggles to relate to Edie’s situation, and to Simon, who loves his pregnant girlfriend but who faces outside pressures of his own. All three are flying blind without the tools or support they need.
In the second part of the book, Franks fast-forwards 25 years and introduces us to Luce’s college-age daughter, Meera, who’s unexpectedly pregnant. She and her boyfriend have recently broken up, and Meera finds herself facing the same decision Edie did back in 1959. The author effectively parallels Meera’s experience with Edie’s, highlighting how, in 1984, perceptions of progress vis-à-vis women’s rights provided a feeling of choice, of control over one’s body, but that “progress” was largely illusory. And because Meera’s story is informed by Franks’ own experience, the writing is both personal and visceral; the reader is invited to ride an emotional rollercoaster alongside Meera.
Franks’ intertwining narratives have startling relevance to issues facing women today, including questions regarding bodily autonomy and the rights of birth mothers. In her author’s note, she writes that parents, medical professionals, and social workers once “coerced, pressured, or duped” unwed mothers into signing away rights to their children because “public opinion was virtually unanimous. Americans did not question the one single assumption: that in the case of unplanned pregnancy, adoption was the best solution.”
Of course, women who give up their children often mourn a loss not even seen as a loss by others. The birth mother, after all, would be “getting her life back,” “starting afresh,” “helping a couple build a family,” or “providing a better future for the child,” not coping with grief or potential post-pregnancy health issues. Yet even if the decision to surrender a child ultimately proves beneficial for all parties, there is almost always fallout. The Say So is the rare novel that details the typically glossed-over confusion, physical and emotional trauma, and contradictions surrounding adoption.
Still, the book isn’t shy about acknowledging the grey areas in matters involving unplanned pregnancy, nor does Franks tell the reader what to think. Instead, she offers two unique perspectives on what “the right to choose” means and contextualizes them within their respective eras. And she’s doing so at a moment in our history when reproductive freedom is again under attack, making this story both urgent and necessary.
Sarahlyn Bruck is a community-college writing professor and the award-winning author of three contemporary novels: Light of the Fire (coming in January 2024), Designer You (2021), and Daytime Drama (2018). She lives in Philadelphia with her family.