By Carolyn Williams
The title character of “Mathilda Savitch” begins her narrative stating: “I want to be awful. I want to do awful things and why not? Dull is dull is dull is my life.” With that promising beginning, poet and playwright Victor Lodato’s debut novel embarks on a refreshing and unforgettable 300 pages.
Things are not going well in Mathilda Savitch’s life as the novel begins. The year before, her older sister, the beautiful and perfect Helene, was run over by a train, effectively shattering Mathilda’s family. As a young adolescent grappling with grief and a desperate need for normalcy, Mathilda resolves to shock her parents out of their despondency using the tactic of bad behavior.
Mathilda’s actions like breaking plates, flirting with boys, getting new haircuts and, worst of all, dressing in Helene’s clothes on the anniversary of her death, all irritate her parents, but Mathilda remains unsatisfied. She soon realizes that simply getting her parents’ attention is not enough. She watches in disgust as her mother takes a leave of absence from the school where she works so she can devote more time to her worsening alcoholism, and her father sags deeper and deeper into the loss of his child. Mathilda decides to act out further.
After numerous attempts, Mathilda guesses the password to her sister’s e-mail account and attempts to learn more about the last days of the sister she continues to hero-worship, despite the growing evidence that Helene was not really what she seemed. Communicating with ex-boyfriends as Helene, Mathilda begins to piece together what really happened and is forced to admit that even Helene was not the idol she had always thought her to be; maybe she was not pushed off the platform by a faceless stranger as Mathilda has convinced herself and her readers, maybe she never knew her sister as well as she thought, maybe Helene jumped. And, most importantly, Mathilda realizes that masquerading as her dead older sister is not going to solve her own disconcerting emotional issues.
Mathilda tempers her mourning with humor and an almost savagely blunt analysis of the people around her. Lodato has rendered her voice brilliantly, maintaining the youthfulness of a child’s mind without sounding like he’s trying too hard. Fierce and funny, Mathilda is clearly a cousin of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, both in her speech and even more so in her behavior as the book progresses, but their situations are distinctly different. Mathilda is growing up in the modern age of terror, and the looming shadows and troubling mindset belonging to today distance her from Caulfield’s New York exploits. Although it will probably never be held in the same esteem as its predecessor, “Mathilda Savitch” is “The Catcher in the Rye” for the present moment, and the outlook is a frightening one.