blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1
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Review | Mathilda Savitch, by Victor Lodato
               Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009

  Mathilda Savitch, by Victor Lodato

Coming-of-age novels often revolve around the adolescent main character confronting, for the first time, a seemingly “adult” issue or life event. This issue, which tends to lead the character through some manner of existential crisis in which she must prove her maturity and mettle (or recognize her lack thereof), might be anything from sex and relationships to drugs to debilitating injury to divorce to mental illness. Adult readers perhaps find such stories compelling, at least partially, because we now know that there is no such thing as an “adult” issue, and that we as adults often feel as ill-equipped and lost in the face of such events as do the teenage protagonists on the pages we read.

In Victor Lodato’s Mathilda Savitch, winner of the 2010 First Novelist Prize from Virginia Commonwealth University, the title character grapples with the Holy Grail of things-children-shouldn’t-have-to-experience: death. Indeed, not just abstract “Death,” but the recent death of a close family member—in the aftermath of which, Mathilda simultaneously wrestles with suicide, survivor’s guilt, and yes, relationships, too. While the plot and subject matter resonate in their own right, Lodato’s prose really shines in the voice of Mathilda, the narrator who leads us through this tale of grief and suspense and learning that “really the only way to grow up is to not look back.”

Mathilda’s voice, drily witty and appropriately angsty, testifies to an impressive authorial skill: to inhabit a character that is both female and adolescent—two things that Lodato decidedly is not. Mathilda casually remarks about living “in a time of terror” (the only time she has ever known, and an unsettling comment on the post-9/11 generation), gripes about “bleeding again,” and navigates school drama with all the aplomb one would expect of a teenager (read: not much). At times flippant, at others morbidly earnest, Lodato’s creation strikes all the right notes for a contemporary teen girl. She’s a convincing narrator because Lodato so deftly renders her voice—which drives the novel—but she’s also a compelling one because it’s not just a teenage voice or a female voice, it’s a profoundly human one.

The book opens with that voice telling us “I want to be awful.” Nearly a year has passed since her older sister Helene’s murder, and Mathilda Savitch is clearly still dealing with her grief—not to mention her parents’: “Ma and Da have turned to stone.” Mathilda’s awfulness mostly plays out in small ways—breaking a few plates, plucking hairs out of her head one at a time (“You have to have the fingers of a surgeon,” she tells herself), sneaking into her sister’s bedroom and reading her old love notes—but she believes that it’s best to “save my awfulness for the people who deserve it. . . . You don’t want to waste it on the wrong person.” The right person, Mathilda believes, is her sister’s still-at-large murderer, who pushed Helene in front of the train that killed her.

Mathilda’s fixation on her sister’s killer looms large in the novel, even as she’s simultaneously striving for a return to normal in her family and social life. Part of the pleasure of the reading lies in puzzling out just how accurate our narrator’s perspective is, as it soon becomes clear that neither her parents nor her shrink nor any of her friends see Helene’s death quite as Mathilda does. Details like Mathilda’s therapist telling her she has an “artistic temperament,” her own admission that she has “secrets and [is] going to have more,” and her vivid imagination, which Lodato reveals to us through Mathilda’s trademark pithy observations (“You only know the here and now. The rest you have to imagine.”), offer clues that our narrator might not be wholly reliable. Lodato paces the revelation of key details aptly, allowing the reader to enjoy the act of distinguishing imagination from reality as we peer into Mathilda’s mind.

The workings of that mind offer some of the chief delights of Lodato’s prose. While the novel isn’t heavy on lyrical description or poetic images, Mathilda makes matter-of-fact statements that reveal an insight beyond her years and often resonate as fundamental and true. At times these statements come via casual descriptions of a character or situation, as when she says of her mother, “Plus she’s not even a mother anymore, she’s just a planet with a face” or notes a moment of sexual tension: “It felt like mud, like walking through a swamp.” Other times, Lodato places in Mathilda’s mouth the most poignant expressions of loneliness and isolation (prominent themes in the book). She recognizes that “There is so little imagination in the world. A person like me is basically alone.” Or, “Looking at people through glass is as real as anything. It’s no different from how I normally feel with people.” Her observations about growing up are no less acute: “Every second that goes by you’re someone else.” As often funny as they are heartbreaking, Mathilda’s observations form the bedrock of her narrative voice, further underscoring it as a triumph of Lodato’s writing.

As Mathilda struggles to hold her mourning family together and worries about her sister’s killer, she navigates the twisting tributaries of grief, including fears that Helene was the favored daughter and that Mathilda should have died instead, a friendship that threatens to crumble, and the realization that her parents are fallible—and as “grown-up” as these matters seem, her coping mechanisms still ring true as appropriately adolescent and, more importantly, human: she whacks all her hair off, develops a crush on a boy who paints his fingernails black, cuts class, and tries to hack her sister’s email. In her search for truth, she creates her own logic, lets her imagination have free rein over her thoughts and emotions. Eventually, the chaotic swirl of her family’s loss settles into something like answers, something that, while it doesn’t tie up every loose end, feels to the reader just strange enough to be true and undeniably real.

Lodato sets the bar for his novel high when he writes, in Mathilda’s voice: “The best stories are . . . like spaceships. They take you somewhere far away and you think, oh, what a weird place. But then you think, wait, maybe I’ve been here before. Maybe I was even born here.” In Mathilda Savitch, Lodato seems to have achieved just that effect, shuttling the reader through the unknown, the quotidian, the weird, and the ordinary to a place that could be home.  end

Victor Lodato is the author of the novel Mathilda Savitch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), which received the 2010 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. He is also the author of thirteen plays, including Motherhouse (Samuel French, 2010), for which he received the 2002 L. Arnold Weissberger Award, and Dear Sara Jane, which was anthologized in The Back Stage Book of New American Short Plays 2005 (Back Stage Books, 2004).

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