Monday, November 23, 2009

Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato

Mathilda Savitch / Victor Lodato
Toronto: Random House, c2009.
304 p.

I read this a few weeks ago and haven't had a chance to mention it yet. That's too bad, because I found it to be a very entertaining read and wish I would have shared my enthusiasm while it was still fresh. Still, I do want to talk about this book a little; it's been getting a fair amount of attention but I think it can stand a lot of discussion -- there's a lot in it.

It is the story of Mathilda Savitch, thirteen years old, precocious and obsessed with her sister's recent death. Her sister Helene was pushed in front of a train a year before and Mathilda is trying to understand what happened. She doesn't know how her parents can be destroyed by grief and yet not be making every effort to find Helene's killer. The event is tearing apart Mathilda's family, with her mother sunk into her own depression and her father working every day and isolating himself from the emotions swirling in the household. Mathilda herself feels overlooked, and as the book opens she states: I want to be awful. I want to do awful things and why not.

She spends the rest of the book acting out, doing things that perhaps a girl of thirteen really shouldn't be doing; hacking her sister's abandoned email account, taking the train alone to find her sister's lover and question him, sleeping over at her neighbour's house after sneaking out alone (in his bedroom, in his bed, with him in it as well). She becomes a troubled child, but one who is determined to discover the truth about Helene's death. It's a tale told from a very strong character's perspective; Mathilda's voice is consistent and very believable, a young girl on the cusp between childhood and a more knowing adolescence.

Mathilda is a wonderful creation; she is conflicted, both loving and hating her parents, both idolizing and revealing the flaws of her deceased sister. She has a sassy voice and is a clever and intrepid addition to the phalanx of fictional girl detectives. Her creative attempts to find solutions to the questions she holds regarding Helene's death are always entertaining though just on the edge of being just too cheeky. Fortunately, the end of the book offers us the hope that her psychic trauma is resolved, or has the potential to be resolved. The portrayal of all members of her family, parents and Helene herself, are really well done. They are all full characters with personality, and individual lives outside of their relation to Mathilda. I enjoyed finding out more about them as the novel progressed and small facts were added to the story about each of them and their motivations for acting the way they did, even if Mathilda hadn't been aware of these elements previously. Lodato does a great job of giving us all this information in a way that Mathilda, the narrator, would naturally discover; some of the information that we read and are able to comprehend as signs and hints to the real story, Mathilda herself does not understand. She is just passing on her observations, without knowing what the deeper meaning of such behaviours or statements by others could be. This novel is so well constructed and suspenseful to its conclusion.

However, there were a few points that weren't so marvellous for me. At times the influence of Catcher in the Rye comes through a little too strongly for my taste, and Mathilda starts sounding eerily close to Holden Caulfield. I'm thinking of one scene in particular. But that could just be because, unlike Lodato, I don't actually like Catcher in the Rye very much. The very Caulfield preoccupations Mathilda reveals could have been toned down just a little, to my tastes, but again, I never did like Holden. Also, Mathilda's tentative sexual explorations felt a bit unnecessary to me, I am sure she had some interests in those areas but it wasn't my favourite part of the story; I didn't like her neighbour whom she was interested in sexually. The tempo of the narrative is rapid, full of action and Mathilda's manic voice pulling us forward, but it did feel a little like Lodato wasn't sure where to conclude the book. After Mathilda's final discovery, the book kind of just stops. There is no grand conclusion but as I mentioned earlier, there is the possibility held out that Mathilda and her family will be okay.

Still, I enjoyed this book a lot and would definitely recommend it. The main characters are wonderful and the voice of the novel is refreshing and entertaining. Mathilda's road through grief was touching, funny, and very bittersweet. She is a convincing narrator and you want her to find the truth and be able to move on with her life. The truth will become evident to the reader much earlier than to Mathilda, and this engenders a lot of sympathy for her struggles. This was an original book that I liked despite my initial reservations. I'm glad I read this one; Mathilda has stayed with me.

Interview with Victor Lodato in Experience Toronto

Other bloggers' opinions:

Luanne at A Bookworm's World likes it, but also mentions the disconnect between theme and cover art

Deanna at My Tragic Right Hip liked it and compares it to other adolescent narrator driven stories

Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea was drawn in by the narrator's voice (and had a copy with the cover I prefer)


  1. I'll have to add this to my wish list- I have heard primarily good things about it! Thanks for linking to the other reviews as well; it's nice to be able to make comparisons!

  2. Glad to see you enjoyed this one.

  3. Here is my review of it:

    I found this a little more disappointing than you did, especially the way it ended. I also wasn't totally enamoured with Mathilda as a character; I found her a bit too much at times.

  4. What a great insightful review Melanie! Thanks for the link. Jesica mentioned that they are thinking of changing the cover art for trade/pb editions.

  5. Jonita, Diane - I did enjoy this one as an intriguing read. Certainly it had a few flaws but overall I enjoyed it.

    Wandering Coyote - thanks for linking to your review. You've brought out a few points that really make me reconsider a bit. I liked Mathilda's voice, but could have used fewer Catcher in the Rye overtones.

    Luanne - oh, new cover art would be great. I actually really like the hardcover image in itself, but don't feel it represents the story quite accurately.

  6. This always happens to me! I'll read a book and then too much time will pass for it to stay fresh in my memory. Thanks for this review--sounds eerily engaging. And! I am SO glad to hear that silly Holden has not won the world over. Couldn't stand him.

  7. Well, I am ashamed to say I haven't read Cather in the Rye...

  8. Rosemary - you might enjoy this one; but I am so glad to hear I am not the only one who didn't like Holden! ;)

    Wandering Coyote - well, aren't you lucky?! I had to read it in high school, when we spent all our English classes reading the great American classics. Don't think we actually read one Canadian book for the curriculum the entire three years. :( Of course that was some years ago...


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