Despite years of being told not to, I immediately judged Victor Lodato’s novel Mathilda Savitch by the cover. I opened it expecting to speed through a mature version of Harriet the Spy with a twist of Tim Burton’s eccentricity. The title suggested a fantastic world not unlike Coraline; however, the fantasy of Mathilda Savitch is of the saddest shade.
Young Mathilda Savitch is a teenager who introduces herself in the first line of the book by saying, “I want to be awful.” Disoriented by the sudden death of her older sister Helene, Mathilda descends into an internal world of obsessive compulsive habits, nightmares, and delusion. Her home reflects her dark imagination, as her mother has succumbed to depression and alcoholism while her father weakly tries to maintain the family’s previous levity.
Mathilda Savitch is bitterly funny at times, reminiscent of The Catcher in the Rye or The Bell Jar. While it’s supposed to be a coming-of-age story—addressing menstruation, sexual experimentation, as well as basic rebellion—it feels more like a moment fixed in time.
While there are wonderful moments in the book, it isn’t flawless. A parallel theme of terrorism felt superficial and gratuitous. I also wasn’t completely convinced by Mathilda’s voice, especially when it came to puberty and sexuality. As a woman, I did not sense authenticity in these moments as I did when she was frustrated with her parents or missing her sister. Her thoughts, which compose the majority of the book, often sound more like staged monologues.
In fact, Lodato is a playwright and a poet, and this is his debut novel. Bits of the text read like poetry—“Window eyes, a window nose, and a door for a mouth”—while other parts sound like a play. Overall, however, Lodato has captured a painful stream of consciousness. I could imagine myself as a sometimes unhappy teenager wanting to find a dark place, alone, to obsess over Mathilda Savitch like a secret friend. This is a book worth reading, and although a fast read, it is not best suited for the beach.
Review by Claire Burrows