Book World: Carolyn See Reviews ‘Mathilda Savitch' by Victor Lodato

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By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 15, 2009

MATHILDA SAVITCH

By Victor Lodato

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 292 pp. $25

In Victor Lodato's first novel, the title character, Mathilda Savitch, lives with her parents in a pleasant American suburb somewhere in the Northeast. She is what hopeful marketers label a "tween," living somewhere toward the tag-end of her childhood and the beginning of her years as an adult consumer. Her parents are professors at a nearby college. Mathilda should feel protected and safe, but she is old enough to remember the horrors of 9/11, and other terrorist activities have taken place since then. Mathilda is, indeed, terrified and has taken to hiding supplies in the family basement, against the day when the world ends. Far more troubling than all that, about a year earlier Mathilda's older sister, Helene, was pushed under a train by an unknown assailant. Her mother and father are in deep mourning and so, it would seem, is Mathilda.

And yet the younger sister still seethes with envy, exasperation and hatred as she thinks of Helene, a semi-slut who dressed provocatively, had a date (almost) every night and, perhaps even more significant, was locked in a very intense relationship with their mother.

The mother, who was beautiful and wild when she was young, married much too early and missed out on a good deal of the youthful fun and adventure that she thought was coming to her. Worried that Helene was straying down the same path, she begged and cajoled her beautiful older daughter to be chaste, or at least be careful.

All in vain. Helene is dead. Their mother has turned to drink for solace. Their dad suffers greatly. Mathilda does what any troubled adolescent would do: act out, pitch fits, stage tantrums, throw up in the theater, pick fights with her mother and wear her sister's dresses to the consternation of all concerned.

She also has trouble at school. But her best friend, Anna, is a pretty, good-hearted girl, snug in the bosom of her own family, who love her unconditionally. Mathilda dismisses Anna as a bit of a dimwit even as she adores her, and this ambiguous affection is seen against the comparatively reluctant attraction she feels for Kevin, the boy next door, who is suitably mute, boylike and callow.

Here is Mathilda, sorting out the nature of her own, eventual sexuality. She loves Anna fully and naturally, but in the larger scheme she's probably going to cast her lot with boys, as most girls do. The future of the human race depends upon it, and a sizable segment of the novel takes place in the Savitch basement, where Mathilda has coaxed Anna and Kevin to spend the night in a dress rehearsal for what will happen after the next terrorist attack, when the end of the world is set in motion.

As her mother deteriorates, sinking further into an alcoholic fog, Mathilda torments her by playing tapes of Helene singing. Clearly, she and her mother are in more immediate pain than even this very bad situation warrants.

A pervasive, continuing mystery surrounds Helene's death. Who was the man who pushed her, and why would he want to do that? Mathilda spends a good deal of time trying to figure out the password to her sister's computer. There is a man out there, a "Louis," who seems to have been in love with Helene. Who is he?

"Mathilda Savitch" is written by a male playwright in the first person as a study of a female pre-adolescent. Unfortunately, when anyone writes about an adolescent, he or she runs the risk of getting caught in Salingeresque echoes, and they inevitably appear here: "Do you ever notice how people can get like that when you ask them certain questions? You ask them a simple question and they act like you're moving into their house or something." Or, "I make a mental note to go visit him. Suddenly I was missing him like you wouldn't believe." These are the marks of a bumptious adolescent, but they also sound as if they could have come from Holden Caulfield's cousin.

It's a hard challenge to write from the lips of an American youngster. Added to that, Mathilda is a notoriously unreliable narrator; you don't know when to take her word for anything.

All this is presented as though it's wry, even hilarious. But I think it's terribly sad and depressing. I couldn't help thinking, to what end? The publisher claims that the book "thrums with hints of ancient myth." I'm sorry, I couldn't pick up the hints.

See can be reached at http://www.carolynsee.com.

Michael Dirda's review will appear in Friday's paper.


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