You will feel the ache in Mathilda Savitch, a dazzling first novel by playwright Victor Lodato. There’s the ache of adolescence, of worrying about Ma’s drinking and depression, of not knowing which suburban neighbors to trust in a post-9/11 world, and above all of losing a sixteen-year-old sister to violent death.
Mathilda, the young survivor who pours out her soul in journal-like entries, deals with reality by transforming it. The psychologist her parents send her to for grief counseling becomes “The Tree,” the basement of the family home an air-raid shelter. Mathilda’s imaginative powers turn dangerous, however, when she embellishes her sister Helene’s death with fictional detail. Are such inventions essential to the process of recovery in tragedy’s aftermath? “Who is she really thinking about when she thinks about me?” Mathilda asks, referring to her mother in a question that grows more haunting as the story unfolds.
Although Anne Frank is invoked frequently, Mathilda’s survival is never in doubt. She’ll come of age—but how? Lodato is at his best when he gets his protagonist away from Ma and Da (the Irish-sounding forms of address are never explained, nor is geographical setting clearly established) and into the company of her best friend, Anna McDougal, and the boy next store, Kevin Ryder, who has recently dyed his hair blue and who long ago showed Mathilda how to pull the legs off spiders. In a climactic basement/air-raid shelter sleepover scene, the three friends face down the classic teenage challenges: how to stave off boredom, how to make each other laugh, and what to do about those raging hormones. We get a remarkably full portrait of Mathilda here, as she negotiates between her inner and outer worlds. Just as she’s wowing us with her comic timing and unexpected choices, her sister’s death burbles up from her secret thoughts and leads to a tense moment between her and Anna. When Anna challenges Mathilda’s version of the truth, our understanding of the main character—and her story—is irrevocably altered.
Lodato takes on weighty subjects, and the novel teeters on the brink of truly dark material. Mathilda discovers the password for her dead sister’s email and begins to read and respond to messages from Helene’s numerous lovers. She muses about a local Muslim family that seems suspicious to her. While pretending to smoke an extra-long cigarette in front of Kevin, Mathilda seems noirish, if not mentally unstable. “Grief is an island,” she reports in a despondent moment. “I could see Da was in pain and that it was different from my pain. You could feel the ocean between us, with dark water freezing cold.” But like a causeway between island and mainland, the bond between Mathilda and her parents nonetheless feels solid, allowing Lodato to pull back from the edge of despair and offer an essentially upbeat take on humanity.
Voice-driven novels with child narrators live or die based on the likeability of the main character, and as such, Mathilda Savitch succeeds beautifully. Hats off to Lodato, who manages this feat even when his heroine is confessing to intentionally hurting the family dog. We’re never told Mathilda’s age, an ambiguity that impedes our understanding of the character—is she twelve? fifteen?—and our ability to configure our expectations of her.
Otherwise, Lodato’s story flows as naturally as if Mathilda were recording it in her diary, a superficial simplicity that masks the artful weaving of the various plot lines. The mystery of who killed Helene keeps us turning the pages, as does the question of whether Mathilda’s friendship with Anna will deepen or languish. And then there’s Kevin and those raging hormones—what will happen when he and Mathilda are alone together, with no one watching but his tropical fish?
“What will happen, who will you become?” Mathilda asks her own reflection, and readers will likewise come to wonder what mystery Mathilda is really working on. It’s an uncertainty that, when you think about it, is a fitting metaphor for adolescence under any circumstances.