Mathilda Savitch

Mathilda Savitch

3.1 70
by Victor Lodato, Cassandra Campbell
     
 

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A fiercely funny and touching debut novel about a young girl trying to find out the truth behind her sister’s death

I have a sister who died. Did I tell you this already? I did but you don’t remember, you didn’t understand the code . . . She died a year ago, but in my mind sometimes it’s five minutes. In the morning

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Overview

A fiercely funny and touching debut novel about a young girl trying to find out the truth behind her sister’s death

I have a sister who died. Did I tell you this already? I did but you don’t remember, you didn’t understand the code . . . She died a year ago, but in my mind sometimes it’s five minutes. In the morning sometimes it hasn’t even happened yet. For a second I’m confused, but then it all comes back. It happens again.

Fear doesn’t come naturally to Mathilda Savitch. She prefers to look right at the things nobody else can bring themselves 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.

Mathilda decides she’s going to figure out what lies behind the catastrophe. She starts sleuthing through her sister’s most secret possessions—e-mails, clothes, notebooks, whatever her determination and craftiness can ferret out. More troubling, she begins to apply some of her older sister’s magical charisma and powers of seduction to the unraveling situations around her. In a storyline that thrums with hints of ancient myth, Mathilda has to risk a great deal—in fact, has to leave behind everything she loves—in order to discover the truth.

Mathilda Savitch bursts with unforgettably imagined details: impossible crushes, devastating humiliations, the way you can hate and love your family at the same moment, the timeswhen you and your best friend are so weak with laughter that you can’t breathe. Startling, funny, touching, odd, truthful, page-turning, and, in the end, heartbreaking, Mathilda Savitch is an extraordinary debut. Once you make the acquaintance of Mathilda Savitch, you will never forget her.

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Editorial Reviews

Cameron Martin
As Mathilda secretly investigates the details of Helene's life and death, she's on shaky emotional ground herself, but she never loses her eye for bleak absurdities…the vulnerable black humor permeating this Salingeresque wonder of a first novel…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

The first novel from poet and playwright Lodato is a stunning portrait of grief and youthful imagination. Narrator Mathilda Savitch is an adolescent girl negotiating life after the death of her older sister, Helene. Her parents, especially her alcoholic mother, are too traumatized to give her the comfort she needs, so she lives in an elaborate world of her own invented logic. Mathilda evaluates sex, religion and national tragedy in language that is constantly surprising, amusing and often heartbreaking. She speaks with the bold matter-of-factness of a child, but also reveals a deep understanding of life far beyond her years: "I wondered why god would unlock a door just to show you emptiness," she says. "It made me wonder if maybe he was in cahoots with infinity." Lodato chooses every word with extreme care; Mathilda's observations read like a finely crafted epic poem, whose themes and imagery paint an intricate map of her inner life. She's a metaphysical Holden Caulfield for the terrifying present day. (Sept.)

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Library Journal
Mathilda is rebelling against everything and making up her own version of reality, hoping to come upon something more meaningful and less painful than the world in which she lives. Along with her parents, this intelligent and hyper-imaginative young teenager is trying to come to grips with the death of her older sister a year earlier. Presented in a first-person, present-tense onslaught of conversations, fantasies, and confrontations, the novel follows Mathilda as she begins the new school year and immediately gets into trouble with the principal. Later, she invites friends to her house for an all-night survival exercise in her basement, since this a world in which sisters incomprehensibly die and terrorists attack. Mathilda carries on a personal investigation of her sister's life, hacking into the sister's former email account and messaging a boy she figureds was involved with her sister. VERDICT Engaging and humorous yet grappling with serious issues, this novel details a girl's distorted view of events and the people around her. The treatment is mature and literary, but this title could almost be a YA novel. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/09.]—Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. Lib. at Oneonta
School Library Journal
Adult/High School—Mathilda speaks directly to readers in a stream-of-conscious narrative fraught with grief and guilt as she attempts to come to terms with the reality of her sister's death. While her mother drinks away her grief and her father sinks into depression, Mathilda acts out with irresponsible, risky behavior that is hurtful and incomprehensible to her grieving parents. An unreliable narrator, she is certain her beautiful older sister was pushed in front of a train, and she sets about finding the man responsible. While snooping in Helene's room, she recovers emails from the 16-year-old's lover and decides to confront him. Louis, a man much older than her sister, is not the sinister murderer Mathilda expects but a sad veteran broken in spirit and body. Finally accepting the truth, Mathilda responds with a magnanimous lie to shield him from the painful reality of his pregnant lover's suicide. The author captures the protagonist's anguished adolescent voice perfectly: her wild imagination and humorous observations; her palpable fears, particularly of attacks from terrorists; and her lonely grief for the sister she worshipped with ambivalent passion.—Jackie Gropman, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library System, Fairfax, VA
Kirkus Reviews
A wildly precocious adolescent girl searches for the truth behind her sister's death in playwright Lodato's creative and engaging debut novel. The author crafts a singular voice that combines the disjointed confessional tone of Holden Caulfield with the ethereal sadness of Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones. The13-year-old narrator's matter-of-fact reflections on her dysfunctional family hold the whole amazing concoction together. Mathilda Savitch is blessed with a unique point of view. "I've been told I have an ‘artistic temperament,' " she confides, "which means I have thoughts all over the place and not to be concerned." A year after the mysterious death of her sister Helene, crushed under a train, Mathilda is on the trail of the killer, breaking into Helene's e-mail account to flush out a suspect among her sister's many boyfriends. Simultaneously she's deceiving her shrink; trying to hold together the remains of her parents' fractured marriage; and balancing her affections for best friend Anna McDougal with their mutual interest in a handsome young classmate. The story Lodato tells, while compulsively readable, isn't the main selling point. It's the way he occupies Mathilda so completely, giving her marvelous lines like, "Sometimes I'd think I'd like to be a person with brain damage, with nothing but the whale of joy jumping around inside of me," or, "The thing is, I don't want to end up like Ma and Da. In a house with books and dust and all the love gone out of it." His portrait of a damaged but hopeful girl stands up to classics like Walter Tevis' Queen's Gambit (1983). Crossover potential could be limited by some PG-13 material, but both mature adolescents and adult readers will findmuch to love in Lodato's remarkable creation.
From the Publisher
"A stunning portrait of grief and youthful imagination." —Publishers Weekly Starred Review

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400143306
Publisher:
Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date:
09/15/2009
Edition description:
Library - Unabridged CD
Product dimensions:
6.80(w) x 6.50(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

1

I want to be awful. I want to do awful things and why not? Dull is dull is dull is my life. Like now, it’s night, not yet time for bed but too late to be outside, and the two of them reading reading reading with their eyes moving like the lights inside a copy machine. When I was helping put the dishes in the washer tonight, I broke a plate. I said sorry Ma it slipped. But it didn’t slip, that’s how I am sometimes, and I want to be worse.

I’ve hurt things, the boys showed me this. Pulling legs off spiders and such. Kevin Ryder next door and his friends, they let me come into their fort. But that was years ago, I was a child, it didn’t matter if I was a boy or a girl. It would be against the law to go into their fort now I suppose. The law of my mother. Why don’t you stay home? she says. Be careful out there, every time I walk out the door. But is it just words I wonder, how much does she really care? Who is she really thinking about when she thinks about me? I have my suspicions. And anyway, do the boys even have a fort anymore? It was probably all destroyed a long time ago. It was a fort in the woods made from sticks and blankets and leaves. Things like that don’t last forever.

And besides, now I know things about my body I didn’t know back then. It’s not the innocence of yesteryear, that’s for sure.

Awful is easy if you make it your one and only. I pinch Luke sometimes. Luke is our dog. You can’t pinch all dogs, some will bite. But Luke is old and he ’s a musher, he ’s all about love love love and so he ’d never bite you. I pet him for a few minutes all nice and cuddly and then all of a sudden I pinch him and he yelps and goes circling around the room looking for the mystery pincher. He doesn’t even suspect me, that’s how blind with love he is. But I suppose if you held a gun to my head—did I love him, didn’t I love him?—I guess I would have to say I loved the stupid dog. He ’s been with us forever and he sleeps on my bed.

If you want to know, I was born in this house with this dog and those two, teachers of all things. A blue house. If you look at it from the outside, you’d swear it had a face, the way the windows are. Window eyes, a window nose, and a door for a mouth. Hi house, I say whenever I come home. I’ve said this for as long as I can remember. I have other things I say, better than this, but I don’t tell anyone. I have secrets and I’m going to have more. Once I read a story about a girl who died, and when they opened her up they found a gold locket in her stomach, plus the feathers of a bird. Nobody could understand it. Well, that’s me. That’s my story, except what are they going to find in my stomach, who knows? It’s definitely something to think about.

For a second as I watch them reading, I think Ma and Da have turned to stone. So where is the woman with snakes in her hair, I ask myself. Is it me? Then I see the books moving up and down a little and so I know Ma and Da are breathing thank god. Luke is a big puddle of fur on the carpet, off in dreamland. Out of nowhere he farts and one eye pops open. Oh what’s that? he wonders. Who’s there? Some guard dog, he can’t tell the difference between a fart and a burglar. And he ’s too lazy to go investigate. As long as they don’t steal the carpet from under him, what does he care. I can pretty much read his mind. Animal Psychic would be the perfect job for me. The only animals I’m not good at getting inside are birds. Birds are the lunatics of the animal world. Have you ever watched them? Oh my god, they’re insane! Even when they sing I don’t a hundred percent believe them.

I hate how quiet it is. One smelly dog fart and then nothing, you almost think you’ve gone deaf. A person in my position begins to think about things, death even. About death and time and why it is I’m afraid sometimes at night sitting and watching the two of them reading and almost not breathing but for the books moving up and down like something floating on top of the ocean. And is Ma drunk again is the other question, but who’s asking. Shut up and mind your own business, I think. She ’s a free man in Paris. Which is a song Ma used to sing when there were songs in the house. Ancient history.

Oh, and infinity! That’s in my head again. That will keep you up all night, the thought of that. Have you tried to do it? Think of infinity? You can’t. It’s worse than the thoughts of birds. You say to yourself: okay, imagine that space ends, the universe ends, and at the very end there ’s a wall. But then you go: what’s behind the wall? Even if it were solid it would be a solid wall going on forever, a solid wall into infinity. If I get stuck thinking on this, what I do is pull a few hairs from the top of my head. I pull them out one at a time. It doesn’t hurt. You have to have the fingers of a surgeon, separating the hairs and making sure there ’s only one strand between your fingers before you pluck it. You have to concentrate pretty hard on the operation and so it stops you from thinking about other things. It calms you down.

He’s reading a book about China and she ’s reading the selected prose of Ezra Pound, that’s the long and the short of it. She ’s got her shoes off and he ’s got them on. Venus and Mars, if you ask me. And I’m the Earth, though they don’t even know it.

When I get a little bunch of hairs what I usually do is flush some of them down the toilet and then the rest I keep in a jar. I know this is dangerous because if someone found the hair they could use it to make a doll of me and then I would be under their power forever. If they burned the doll I would die, I would disappear. Infinity.

“What are you doing?” Ma says. “Stop picking at yourself.” She crosses her legs. “Don’t you have something to read?”

Books again. I could scream. I mean, I like books just fine but I don’t want to make a career out of it. “I’m just thinking,” I tell her.

She says I’m making her nervous staring at her like that, why don’t I go to bed.

Ma was beautiful once, before I knew her. She ’s got pictures to prove it. She was a beauty nonpareil, my Da says. Now she looks like she’s been crying, but it’s just the reading, and the writing too. Grading papers all the time and scribbling her notes. If she cries I don’t know anything about it, I’m not the person to ask about that. If she wanted to cry I wouldn’t hold it against her. She has plenty of reasons.

“What are you writing?” I said to her once. “The great novel,” said she. I didn’t know she was joking. For a long time I thought maybe she really was writing the great novel and I wondered what sort of part I had in it.

“Go upstairs,” she says. “Your hair could use a wash, when was the last time you washed it?”

She likes to embarrass me in front of my father, who has managed to keep his beauty, who knows how. He doesn’t care if I have dirty hair or not but still, you don’t want to be pointed out as a grease-ball in front of someone like him. Impeccable is what he is, like a cat.

“I washed it yesterday,” I say.

Ma turns to me and does that slitty thing with her eyes, which means you’re a big fat liar, Mathilda.

“Good night Da,” I say, running up the stairs.

“Good night,” he says, “sweet dreams.” This is his standard but it’s still nice to hear it. At least it’s something.

“And wash that hair” is the tail of Ma’s voice following me up the stairs.

Ma is funny, she either says nothing or else she has to get in the last word. You never know which Ma to expect and I can’t decide which one is worse. Lately it’s mostly been the silent Ma. Tomorrow I’m going to break another plate. It’s already planned.

_____

In my room I look in the mirror. It’s amazing how you have the same face every time. Or is it only a trick? Because of course you’re changing, your face and everything. Every second that goes by you’re someone else. It’s unstoppable. The clock ticks, everything is normal, but there ’s a feeling of suspense in your stomach. What will happen, who will you bec ome? Sometimes I wish time would speed up so that I could have the face of my future now.

After the mirror I line up a few papers and books on my desk so that they’re even with the edge. I also make sure not one thing touches another thing and that everything is equal distance apart. It’s only an approximation, I don’t use a ruler or anything. I’ve been doing it for about a year now, the lining up of things. It’s like plucking the hair. Basically it’s magic against infinity.

When Da comes in my room I’m sitting on the bed. Maybe I’ve been here for an hour, who knows.

“I meant to take a shower,” I say. “I forgot.”

He sits next to me and he tries to look at me, except he ’s not so good at it anymore. His eyes go wobbly, almost like he’s afraid of me. He used to pet my hair, but that was practically a million years ago, when I was a baby. Still, it’s a nice moment, just the two of us sitting next to each other. But then all of a sudden she’s there, sticking her head in the door.

“I know,” I say, without her having to say anything. I know, Ma.

“Are you okay?” she says. But it’s not even a real question. I wish it was but it’s not.

Da gets up to go and he pats my dirty hair and I suppose I should be ashamed, but what do I care about anything anyway. That’s part of being awful, not caring. And then what’s part of it too is the thought that suddenly jumps into my head. The thought that it could be a person’s own mother who might make a doll with her daughter’s hair and throw it into a fire. She’d watch the flames eat it up and then she’d dance off to bed laughing and having sex and bleeding little drops of perfume all over the sheets as if there was nothing to it. I wouldn’t put it past her.

But don’t get me wrong. I love her. This is another one of my secrets.

The thing is, I can’t love her, not in the real world. Because this would be degrading to me. To love someone who despises you, and she just might. You should see her eyes on me sometimes. Plus she’s not even a mother anymore, she’s just a planet with a face. Da at least has hands.

“Good night Ma,” I say. “Good night Da.” And they just leave me like that and they don’t make two bones about it. Walk out, whoosh, and where do they go? All I know is I’m not tired and I’m not taking a lousy shower and I’m not reading a stupid book for school about the King and Queen of Spain. I’m just going to sit on this bed and if I want to pull a few hairs from my head I will, and no one can stop me.

_____

Six hairs. Brown, but when I look close I can see it’s almost red where it comes out of my head. Like the hair of another person. Like another person inside me, and she ’s just starting to squirm her way out like a sprout. This is not in the least bit frightening. I’ve actually been expecting her.

I know you can’t see anything from where you are. You just have to believe me.

2

School started again a week ago and I’m very happy to report that Anna McDougal, my best friend, is in my class. Overall it’s an interesting mix of people this year. No one but Anna has any relevance to the story of my life, but a list is always a good thing. I’ll give it to you with thumbnails.

Libby Harris has a disastrous mole on the tip of her nose. A shame really because she’s very quiet and nice. Her father is a lawyer and so she’ll probably have plastic surgery eventually. Sal Verazzo is pretty much the fattest person in the school. Black hair, possibly shoe polish. Thinks he ’s a rock star. Completely deranged.

Sue Fleishman is tall and has curly hair. She doesn’t walk, she sort of slides across the floor like she’s wearing slippers. A stupid way to move but the boys drool over her.

Barbara Bradley always has snacks. She ’s allowed to eat them during class. Supposedly she has a disease.

Jack Delaney is an admirer of mine, but we ’ve never spoken. He has a shirt with a rude monkey on it. Sex addict or will be.

Mimi Brockton is crippled! I’m always watching her, I can’t get enough of her. Red hair. I know I’m not supposed to say crippled, but it’s really the best word.

Donna Lavora has thrown up several times since she ’s come to this school. Will not do well in life.

Max Overmeyer looks like he lives in a shack. Doesn’t smell right. Probably a victim of poverty.

Eyad Tayssir has perfect white teeth but you hardly ever see them. He ’s not a big smiler. Middle Eastern, I’m not sure exactly what country.

Mary Quintas supposedly has a great singing talent but I’ve heard better. She wants to be snob sisters with me but I’m not interested.

Lonnie Tyson still thinks he ’s going to be an astronaut. Good muscles.

Carol Benton is the worst. Conceited, big breasted, and loud. Unattractive but worshipped by men. Doesn’t like me apparently.

Bruce Sellars is funny and I hear he knows magic. I’ve seen him speaking to Carol Benton unfortunately.

Chris Bibb, known as Dribble, came back to school with a tan. It doesn’t make sense on him.

The lovely Anna McDougal of course. With whom I have an important but stormy relationship. More on this later.

Kelly Graber has bad teeth. I suspect she ’s unloved. Good at sports.

Lisa Mead eats liverwurst. Every day!

Lucas London is very pale but I don’t think albino. When he talks his hands shake. He ’s like a lamb. He’s so small you almost want to carry him.

Avi Gosh is the one person smarter than me. He has the eyes of a girl, but he’s very confident. Rich. Sometimes wears sandals.

I’m probably forgetting a few people but if I am there ’s probably a reason. Some people are like ghosts, you can’t capture them, or if you do it’s nothing but a blur.

But really it’s amazing to be around so many different kinds of people every day. Sometimes I watch them and it’s like Animal Planet. Everyone ’s alive and hungry and sometimes Sal Verazzo is so crazy to tell a story that spit starts flying out of his mouth. And in the morning just before class begins, when everyone ’s talking at the same time, it’s like a radio caught between stations. But not two stations, more like a hundred. You can’t make heads or tails of what anyone’s saying. It doesn’t even sound like English, it sounds like bubbles coming up out of boiling mud. If I listen too long, it starts to bother me. It’s probably what hell sounds like. I saw hell once in a movie, and it was pretty incomprehensible. I had to turn it off.

3

I have a sister who died. Did I tell you this already? I did but you don’t remember, you didn’t understand the code.

My sister’s name was Helene. Helene and Mathilda. Everyone always said we were the opposite of each other. Night and Day was the famous expression. I’m the younger one, but it still feels backwards that Helene died first.

She died a year ago, but in my mind sometimes it’s five minutes. In the morning sometimes it hasn’t even happened yet. For a second I’m confused, but then it all comes back. It happens again.

She was sixteen at the end. Practically seventeen, just a few months to go. But sometimes, the way she dressed, you’d think she was even older. Plus she had an excellent way of moving. A person who didn’t know her might think she was showing off, but the truth is she just had a natural sway to her. And then add to that her legs. They went from here to Las Vegas, which is how Ma once described the length of them.

Some of the memories I have of Helene are from the beginning of my life, when I was a baby. Ma looks at me like I’m crazy when I tell her I remember the day Helene was carrying me, and then she started running and she climbed over a fence with me still in her arms.

“What fence?” my mother says.

“A white fence,” I say.

When I say this my father puts his hand on my arm. “Stop,” he says. Lately that’s getting to be his favorite word.

I think about Helene a lot, but basically I’m not allowed to talk about her. To Ma and Da, I mean. Not that this is a rule. It’s more like a law, I suppose.

The other memory I have is Helene and I are in a hole and it’s dark and wet. Somehow we ’re upside down. I remember water getting in my mouth. Maybe we ’re in a well is my first thought.

“You never fell in a well,” Ma says.

“What about a grave,” I say, “or a ditch? People fall in holes all the time,” I say.

Ma goes white like I’m the vampire of questions. My beautiful Da looks at me and I stop.

The thing is, Helene died from a train. That’s the problem. She didn’t jump, a man pushed her. We don’t know who this man was and the police say, at this point, we probably never will.

I wasn’t there when it happened. Neither were Ma and Da. Why she was at the train station is still a big question. A boyfriend is what I think. Helene had lots of them, sometimes even boys from other schools in other towns. She was pretty popular. She had red hair, it was the most amazing hair in the world.

It happened on a Wednesday, which is such an ordinary day. It happened in the middle of the afternoon. A man pushed Helene in front of a train, it’s unbelievable. I always think it’s a mistake. But then it proves to be correct.

Do you believe in curses? That there can be a curse on a person or on a bunch of people at the same time, like a family curse? How will we all die? I wonder. And when?

Helene was going to be a singer. She was a singer. There are recordings. Da made them on his old tape recorder. No one can listen to them now, they’re the most dangerous thing in the world. On one of the tapes it’s Da singing some stupid song with Helene. Both of them are laughing as much as singing. If you listened to it now, it would be Da singing with a ghost. The laughing would kill you.

Ma says the recordings are lost but I know where she keeps them. Plus, I have things hidden too. In my room, under my bed, I have some of Helene ’s school notebooks. I have letters and drawings and birthday cards. I also have some e-mails she printed out. And there’s tons of stuff still left in her room. A person, even a sixteen-year-old, leaves a lot of stuff behind. For a long time I couldn’t look at any of it, but then I realized there might be clues. I’ve started to spend more time in H’s room, but only when I’m alone in the house. It’s a better room than mine and I wouldn’t mind living there. Ma would never allow it though. Sometimes I leave the door to H’s room open, even though I know it irritates her.

I remember once, when I was little, I was looking out H’s window and I saw a hummingbird. Come quick, I said, but by the time Helene came over it was gone. Maybe it’ll come back, she said, and we both stayed by the window for almost a minute, waiting. I guess we didn’t have anything better to do. When I think of the two of us standing there, waiting for that stupid bird, it drives me crazy for some reason. I feel like screaming.

Why does a person push another person in front of a train? Does it have a meaning for the person, the pusher? The explanation of most people is madman. The voices of demons telling him to do it. But how did he get away is my question. It doesn’t make sense. Two men at the train station said they tried to grab him but he slipped away. He just pushed her and then he took off. The police say it happens all the time.

In my mind it’s almost as if the man disappeared after he did it. Like he had one job on Earth. To kill Helene. And after that there was nothing left for him to do but vanish.

I hate him. The feeling is tremendous. I’ve never felt anything like it. If we knew who the man was he’d be in jail. We could go to the jail and ask him questions. Ma and Da wouldn’t but I would. I would be all over him. Even if it was the voices of demons I would pull the demons out of him and make them explain. I would use every bit of my magic.

Next Thursday it will be the day Helene died all over again. It’ll be exactly one year. I marked it in my calendar like this: H.S.S.H. Which is Helene’s initials the right way and then backwards. If you stare at the letters it’s almost like someone telling you to be quiet. Ma and Da haven’t said anything about the big day. I want H.S.S.H. to be a day we’ll all remember. If Ma and Da think I’m going to ignore it, they’ve got another thing coming.

The thing is, Helene was supposed to live forever. That’s just the kind of person she was. You always felt she had some secret power that was going to make her immortal. I wish I could describe to you the color of her hair but there ’s nothing to compare it to.

If the man was caught he’d probably be electrocuted. But electricity doesn’t kill demons as far as I know.

People say the hair was like pennies, but it was better than that.

And she smelled like lemons. When I said this out loud once, Ma looked away, but Da said he had to agree. He whispered in my ear. He said I was right. He said it was lemons all the way.

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