Award-winning playwright Victor Lodato tries his hand at fiction in this quirky novel about Mathilda Savitch, a disturbed thirteen-year old who has been unable to come to grips with the violent death of her sister, a year ago. Helene, sixteen at the time of her death, is believed to have been pushed in front of an oncoming train, but no one has been identified as the assailant, and no one knows why Helene was at the train station. Mathilda's grief-stricken parents, both college teachers, have their own problems dealing with grief, both of them withdrawing to the point that no one is "at home" for Mathilda. She believes that her mother despises her, while she considers her mother to be "just a planet with a face."
Mathilda's tormented inner world parallels the real world around her, a world of repeated terrorist acts. She responds to the stress by pulling out her hair, strand by strand; she believes there's "another person inside [her]... just starting to squirm her way out like a sprout"; she hordes things that belonged to Helene; and she plans a very "special" commemoration of the anniversary of Helene's death, one which is intended to jar her mother out of her passivity. In the meantime, Mathilda hangs out with her friend Anna McDougal, deals with her growing sexual awareness, and wonders about the invisible "watchers" who seem to be keeping tabs on her.
As Lodato explores issues of growing up in an uncertain world, he also raises questions about how individuals learn to accept the violent deaths of loved ones, how we deal with the stages of grieving, the role of religion or other support systems, and the obligations, if any, that the individual has toward the people around him/her. Mathilda is a strange protagonist, someone to whom we might be drawn because of her problems, but someone who also "pushes buttons," a person who takes extreme action. This action often feels superficial, making it difficult to take her seriously. At times Mathilda appears to be "cute," rather than a seriously disturbed character with hidden depths. Her dark sense of humor and her malevolence sometimes get in the way of the reader's sympathy, and as she acts and reacts, she reveals so many conflicting aspects of her personality that it is difficult to understand and identify with her.
Lodato's experience as a dramatist, however, allows him to create some stunning individual scenes, but as in a play, this action is obvious, more physical than subtle. His pacing keeps the reader attentive and hoping for Mathilda's success in dealing with her world, and in the final scenes he builds to a dramatic resolution which is effective in showing how Mathilda has grown during the action, becoming someone who is finally able to go beyond her own needs, for once, and come into her own as a thinking and caring character. Though the novel is uneven and somewhat inconsistent in its characterization and tone, Lodato is a huge talent whose unconventional approach to this novel suggests original and thought-provoking works to come. n Mary Whipple