Born 15 February 1918, Hingham, Massachusetts; died 15 July 1989
Daughter of Robert B. and Mildred Ridlow Fitzgerald; married Thomas Savage, 1939; children: three
Elizabeth Savage graduated from Colby College in Maine. She married a writer and raised three children. She is primarily known as a novelist but has also published short fiction in such periodicals as the Paris Review, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and the Saturday Evening Post.
Savage's earliest novels—Summer of Pride (1960), But Not for Love (1970), and A Fall of Angels (1971)—explore seemingly perfect or privileged families at turning points that reveal the reality and the fallibility beneath the surface. Summer of Pride examines the headstrong Olivers and their Western heritage as their unity is threatened by three outsiders. The portraits of the women, especially the matriarch Emily and the matriach-to-be Rea, are rendered vividly and their values are compared with those of the head of the family, who mistakes avoidance of change for dedication to his dependents.
The tone of But Not for Love is more ironic. The plot depicts the intricate relationships of the Hollister clan after the disappearance of one member; the climax, a dangerous fire, is rendered in a series of wonderfully funny and frightening scenes. Both books skillfully employ multiple points of view and reveal two of Savage's basic themes: all human beings are both unique and ordinary, both strong and weak, and that genuine love fosters tolerance and compassion.
The point of view of Helena St. John Strider, proud of her marital and professional successes, dominates A Fall of Angels. During the Striders' annual Jamaican vacation, the whole fabric of their life and their sense of themselves is twisted when Luke takes a young, bewitching mistress. The relationship between the tourists and Jamaicans serves as a powerful symbol for the unexamined life, and the novel makes effective comments about fidelity and the double standard.
In Happy Ending (1972), Savage's conversational tone again reveals her ear for colloquial speech and for dialogue. The struggle of an aging couple to retain independence is compared to the striving of their young employees for some degree of security. These central characters are unsentimentally portrayed as realistic men and women of conscience, trying to live decent lives.
The Last Night at the Ritz (1973) details the long friendship between the unnamed narrator and her college roommate. The protagonist has few illusions about herself or her loved ones, but even in the crises depicted here she displays charity and understanding. Tension and suspense are maintained beautifully during telling glimpses of the publishing world and the 1960s generation gap, and the powerful flashbacks render college life vividly.
South Boston, locale of A Good Confession (1975), serves protagonist-narrator Meg O'Shaugnessy Atherton as both background and symbol. Called to her dying grandfather's bedside just as she discovers her husband's infidelity, Meg faces her own shortcomings by evaluating herself against memories of her large Irish-American family. The importance of openness with one's loved ones is a central theme.
The friendship among five high school girls in Missoula, Montana, is the frame for The Girls from the Five Great Valleys (1977). Savage again conveys a clear sense of the 1930s Depression by contrasting reports of poverty and suffering with the lives of families who are secure. The Girls from the Five Great Valleys reveals that nurturing love teaches strength for survival; selfish possessiveness leads only to tragedy.
Savage's interest in Victorian literature is reflected in Willowwood (1978), a story of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The novel depicts the complex relationship between Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, and Jane Burden Morris. The four central characterizations are brought vividly to life by honest treatment of their motivations—both charitable and selfish—and the supporting figures are beautifully drawn. The setting is enriched by effective details of everyday life and insights into the status of women.
The decisions of several summer residents to "winter over" on Jacataqua Island off the coast of Maine becomes the symbol for crisis and change in Toward the End (1980). Effective weather imagery and a well-drawn cast of intriguing characters are the book's greatest strengths.
Savage's novels often feature a central image drawn from the animal kingdom; this device underscores Savage's fine ability to describe the natural world. Always in control of her subject matter and style, Savage is particularly adept at characterization and setting and her fiction is informed by splendid humor and illuminating irony.
NYTBR (5 Feb. 1961, 19 Aug. 1973). Time (19 Nov. 1973). Writer (Sept. 1972, Dec. 1974).
—JANE S. BAKERMAN