Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mathilda Savitch, by Victor Lodato

I picked this up before vacation because it was the winner of Barnes and Noble's "Discover New Writers" (or whatever they call it), and that's a pretty good recommendation. I picked it up and read the first chapter, and stuck it in the bag for reading on the plane. Or whatever.

But you know what? It suffers from the fact that I had recently finished reading "Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie," a book it resembles a great deal.

Mathilda Savitch is thirteen years old, and her older sister has been dead for a year. The ineffably good, kind, tender-hearted, beautiful Helene was pushed in front of a train, the man who sent her to her death never found. Mathilda's parents are buried in their own grief and don't seem able to notice the child they still have. Mathilda is tired of being ignored, and resolves to be awful. "Being awful" translated into wearing her sister's clothes and sending emails from her sister's email account.

The book hovers uneasily between genre detective novel and mid-list fiction bildungsroman. Mathilda sets out to "solve" her sister's murder, delving into her sister's on-line life to try to understand what she was doing at the train station the day she died. Mathilda is also trying to "wake up" her parents to her needs. About three-quarters of the way through the novel, Mathilda finally confesses her own guilt about her sister's death. That morning, Helene was having what can only be described as a tantrum, screaming "I wish I was dead" before locking herself into her room.

Being the opposite of an angsty teen, Mathilda says, "Why don't you then?" An incident that would have been forgotten if Helene hadn't actually died that day. So Mathilda has her own demons to exorcise around Helene's death and she turns detective to do it. What follows is not particularly memorable or ultimately very surprising.


Helene was having an affair--can you call it that when neither party is married and one of them is underage? Helene had a relationship with a guy that Mathilda finds out about via the old email account. Improbably, this guy doesn't know that Helene died a year ago, and when Mathilda cautiously contacts him pretending to be her sister, she finds herself in the position of deciding which is worse--him believing she dumped him, or learning that she died.

The guy in question--I've forgotten his name, and I don't care enough about the book to go look it up--is a former soldier who lost an arm in the service. He's in his mid-twenties, and Lodato has set up the book so that you see exactly why Helene fell into this relationship. He's like a big injured stray puppy, living on a military pension, in a small house in the garden of his blind mother's house. So it's a bleeding-heart two-fer! Disabled vet and blind, aged mother! No wonder Helene got in over her head; she was thinking with her legendary soft heart.

So, of course, the reality is that Helene was pregnant, hence the emotional storms and misery. She had a train ticket in her pocket, on her way to tell her lover about their predicament. But she never got there, and once she was dead, nobody knew her email password and so "Helene" never answered his messages.

Mathilda finds herself growing into Helene's place, feeling a pity that might someday be mistaken for love (when she's older than 13) for this wounded man. She shows up at his house wearing one of Helene's dresses. There is even some hint that she might actually have sex with the man, but the moment passes--he sees she isn't Helene, even though he probably wants to believe she would come back to him.

In the end, Mathilda decides she can't tell him that Helene is dead. She tells him about the pregnancy, and that the baby died. He believes that's why Helene wouldn't speak to him, and why she would have sent Mathilda to him. Mathilda makes up a plausible story about Helene's current whereabouts and that she is happy. Then she goes home. The end.

And what about that skulking figure who pushed the Tragic Girl in front of the train. Was he real? Did she jump? Does anybody care? Lodato doesn't seem to--we don't hear anything about him and the "mystery" just evaporates. It's not even that it isn't solved, so much as that Lodato doesn't seem to know what happened in his own book. If there WAS a shadowy guy who was seen on the platform and who pushed Helene, he's never identified and there doesn't seem to be any effort to find him. Or, as Mathilda seems to think, Helene jumped, then there is no mystery, but again, Mathilda doesn't seem to feel guilty about it by the end.

So, did Mathilda grow as a result of her investigation? Maybe. Which isn't much of an endorsement for a bildungsroman.

As I think about this book, I keep remembering Harriet the Spy, which I read at least twice as a kid. I kept waiting for Harriet to find something to spy on, for some mystery to appear that she could solve, and it kept not happening. Even at the time, I suspected that I missed the point of that book, but I remain mad enough about it that I won't go back and re-read it. I think much the same of this one: there is potentially a better book contained inside this one that I just missed. But I'm not going to spend any time going back to look for it. The "mystery" remains unsolved, the "secrets" pretty predictable, and the writing didn't make the journey enjoyable for its own sake.

But by all means, tell me why I am wrong. I would love to be wrong! Really! I would love to find out that if I just adjust the lens through which I read this book, I'd see it for the masterpiece it really is. You know, like finishing The Turn of the Screw and having somebody say "But the narrator isn't reliable--she's projecting." And suddenly what was a C+ book turns into an A+ experience.

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