Sunday, May 27, 2012

"Mathilda Savitch" by Victor Lodato

Fear doesn't come naturally to Mathilda Savitch. She prefers to look right at the things nobody else can bear to mention: for example, the fact that her beloved older sister is dead, pushed in front of a train by a man still on the loose. Her grief-stricken parents have basically been sleepwalking ever since, and it is Mathilda's sworn mission to shock them back to life. Her strategy? Being bad.

She starts sleuthing through her sister's most secret possessions - e-mails, clothes, notebooks, whatever her determination and craftiness can ferret out. But she must risk a great deal - in fact, she has to leave behind everything she loves - in order to discover the truth. Startling, funny, touching, odd, truthful, page-turning, and, in the end, heartbreaking, [this book] is an extraordinary debut.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I can agree with some of the blurb above: it was page-turning, and at times heartbreaking. But I feel a lot of the blurb is just as misleading as Mathilda herself.

This is an interesting debut work by Lodato, whose credits include play writing and poetry. At times, the book reads like both a play and an extremely long piece of poetry. He's got a way with words, I'll give him that much. But he fails when trying to capture the voice of a 12-year-old girl. I'm sorry, but in no way did I ever believe that Mathilda was a "tween"; she sounds far too old and mature for her age.

It's also the sort of work told strictly in the first person point-of-view, which means we're at the mercy of Mathilda to tell us the truth. The blurb indicates that she's the only one who will tell it to us, but that's actually false. Mathilda lives in her head, and she's invented some very elaborate fantasies to get her through her life. While the majority of them revolve around her departed older sister, I got the distinct impression that she's been doing this (the fantasies) all her life. What comes across loud and clear is that this is one disturbed little girl, and I had a hard time with that.

Some of this works, some of it doesn't. For example, I thought it was interesting that Mathilda's parents are referred to as "Ma" and "Da" - never by anything else, and never their real names. I had to wonder about the author's use of "Da" though - it's not the sort of thing that most American kids call their fathers. It gives the piece a bit of a foreign flair, as well as Mathilda's name and her sister's, Helene. I wish in a way the author had given us more background on Mathilda's ethnicity, but then again, leaving it blank gives the reader a chance to fill it in however he/she wishes.

What didn't work for me, as I said, was Mathilda's "voice". At times it sounded pretty close to the 12-year-olds I know. And yes, they can be rather dramatic at times. But too often it sounded like a grown-up trying to sound like a "wise" 12-year-old: forced, with a vocabulary that just doesn't fit with today's tweens. And while I know that kids at that age are aware of their bodies, Mathilda's preoccupation with sex was just creepy. A final scene between her and her love interest had me actually squirming, I was so uncomfortable with it.

I guess in the end I can't really say whether I recommend this or not. If you're a fan of language, then maybe yes. If you're looking for a good book about a young girl, um, maybe no.

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