Playwright Victor Lodato’s debut novel, Mathilda Savitch
(2009), is a young girl’s first-person account of her loneliness and anger as the one-year anniversary of her older sister’s mysterious death approaches. The Savitch family’s private ordeal unfolds in a post-9/11, near-future America, when global acts of terrorism occur daily, and their dazed suffering reflects the widespread trauma afflicting society. Although Matilda, the title character, responds to her fractured family’s despondency with defiance and irreverence, her plucky narrative voice disguises deep-seated turmoil over questions of love, growing up, and what really happened to her sister.
Helene, Matilda’s 16-year-old sister, was pretty and popular. After she met her death under the wheels of a train, Mathilda’s parents fell to pieces. Her “Ma’ withdrew into herself, numbing her pain with alcohol, while “Da” continued to go through the motions of daily life, but lately, according to Matilda, he “is starting to disappear. He’s basically following Ma, but where is she even going?” A few years younger than Helene, Mathilda is grappling not only with the disintegration of her family, but also the confusing feelings of the early teen years. When she needs her parents’ guidance the most, they have turned away from her, refusing to speak about Helene’s death and distracting themselves with hours of TV news about terrorist activities.
It will soon be one year since Helene died, and as this ominous anniversary nears, Mathilda resolves to take matters into her own hands. To get her parents’ attention and perhaps wake them from their stupor, she intends to become “awful…to do awful things.” She starts smoking cigarettes, breaks a dish while washing it, and slaps a boy at school. After this last act of awfulness, the school counselor takes Mathilda aside to ask about her home life, but she refuses to cooperate with the counselor. She is equally defiant towards the therapist whom her parents take her to see (in a rare show of parenting). Because he seems too old and too wooden, Mathilda calls him “the Tree” and stops going to her appointments.
Matilda also decides it is up to her to solve the mystery of Helene’s death. “A man pushed her” sister in front of a train, and no one is looking for him. Mathilda admits, “The police say…we probably never will” find him, but she snoops for clues in Helene’s room anyway. Crammed inside some stuffed animals, she finds a cache of printed emails from “Louis,” who apparently was Helene’s favorite among her numerous lovers.
Unlike her popular sister, Mathilda has just two friends: Anna McDougal, who is beautiful but dim-witted; and Kevin Ryder, the blue-haired boy next door whose cruel pastimes include pulling off insects’ legs, but Mathilda crushes on him anyway. After Mathilda tells Anna she wants to be bad, Anna asks with wide-eyed shock if Mathilda worries about her soul. This is hardly a matter of concern for Mathilda, who dismisses the soul as a “pudgy…piece of dough.” Her worries are of a more worldly sort, like how to navigate boys and sex. She exploits Anna’s credulity to engage her in a game she’s invented called “Creeps,” in which one of them role-plays as a boy, and the other, as the girl he’s trying to seduce. As Mathilda explains, “Sometimes the boy….has to threaten the girl. I’m much better at it than Anna. Playing the boy, I mean.”
With terrorist attacks a routine part of life, Mathilda construes her world as insecure and even treacherous. At school there are “terror drills” and on TV, “zealots” declaring, “You will all die.” Mathilda’s anxiety compels her to build a bomb shelter in her basement, and she organizes a sleepover with Anna and Kevin to try it out. An explosive night ensues. After a few beers, Mathilda announces her plans to find the madman who killed Helene. Anna and Kevin exchange glances, and then, to Mathilda’s astonishment, Anna says, “She killed herself, Mattie. Everyone knows she killed herself.” Refusing to accept this explanation for Helene’s death, Mathilda feels betrayed. Later, when Kevin thinks Mathilda is sleeping, he tries to rape Anna. Mathilda watches without intervening to help her friend.
Mathilda proceeds with her plans to discover her sister’s murderer. Because Helene dreamed of living in California, Mathilda correctly guesses this was her email password and opens her old account. She sends a message to Louis’s address, pretending to be Helene, and he replies. After several email exchanges, she agrees to go to his house, determined to confront him about Helene’s death.
As Mathilda examines the evidence she uncovers about Helene’s inner life, she realizes her sister was pregnant. This revelation, in turn, sheds light on Helene’s despair the day she died. That morning, Mathilda heard her in her room crying, “’I wish I was dead,’” to which Mathilda retorted, “Why don’t you? Why don’t you just do it?” Feelings of guilt now overtake Mathilda, and she wonders, “How was I supposed to know she wasn’t lying when she said she wanted to kill herself?”
Dressed in Helene’s clothes, Mathilda sneaks out of the house and goes to the train station. She decides that should Louis show interest in her, she will have sex with him. When they meet, however, each is surprised by the other. Mathilda is not who Louis expected to see, and Louis is not who Matilda imagined him to be. He is a disabled veteran, nearly twice her age, subsisting on a military pension. To preserve Helene in his mind as she was – not buried “in a box in the ground” – Mathilda tells Louis that Helene was pregnant, but the baby died, and she’s found happiness again in another relationship.
During the train ride home that evening, Matilda reflects, “The idea of a lover holds a lot of hope for me.” It’s after midnight when she arrives at Kevin’s house. He lets her into his room, and they crawl into bed but are content to simply lie together.
Although Mathilda is clearly an unreliable narrator, reviews of the novel frequently praise her voice as refreshing and wise. A Publisher’s Weekly
assessment observes, “She speaks with the bold matter-of-factness of a child, but also reveals a deep understanding of life far beyond her years.” Matilda Savitch
received the 2010 First Novelist Prize from Virginia Commonwealth University.