In Victor Ladato's debut novel lead character Mathilda Savitch is supposed to be a feisty young girl, running about causing mischief. Her main task in this tale is to track down the killer of her older sister. Sounds like good old Nancy Drew-like fun, doesn't it?
Well, no. Not really. The whole problem with Mathilda Savitch is that Lodato hasn't explained to the reader how seriously mixed-up this poor girl is. It's not until the reader is far into the book that he or she begins to realize that Mathilda is more than full of moxie, she also full of neuroses.
This troubled child (age undetermined,but she seems to be about 14) has lived through her sister's death and now is watching her parents wither away: the mother from alcoholism, the father from enabling and shrinking into himself. Mathilda has become a forgotten person and no one is allowed to mention the deceased sister, Helene. And let's not forget that Mathilda wasn't too crazy about Helene when she was alive, so guilt looms large.
So what once sounded like such a lark becomes deeply depressing. Then throw in the fact that it all takes place in a post-9/11 America that's gotten far worse than we can imagine. Terrors have increased. Nothing has matched "when the towers fell," as Mathilda describes her childhood memory, but there have been bombings. Russians have lost their children in one incident and Mathilda still hears the mothers wail inside her mind. A terrorist with blue eyes tells the world, "You will all die," on television before he shoots himself in his turbaned head. Mathilda mumbles this to herself as if it were a mantra.
She makes a bomb shelter in her basement and invites her best friend and a neighbor boy whom she has a crush on to test it out. She's convinced that she and her friends will be the only ones left alive soon.
Are these normal activities of a young adolescent? I think not. Neither is ruminating about who the madman was who pushed Helene in front of a train. Mathilda goes on and on about how Helene died, standing on a rail platform, headed to a little-known town to meet a boy no one knew.
Time out here. All this is going on — mother drinking, father enabling, sister possibly murdered — and no one has taken Mathilda to see a therapist? Well, it seems someone has. She's been to see an aged shrink she calls the Tree because of his likeness to the unmoving, venerable object. The Tree is full of wisdom, but conversations with him aren't making it for whip-smart Mathilda. She quits and no one bothers to find her a replacement. So much for mental health.
The story trudges on with plucky Mathilda hacking into Helene's e-mail account and discovering who was waiting for her at the other end of the train line. Things start to get just plain creepy when she begins to send e-mail from Helene's account to the boyfriend — just a blank, but still unsettling. And her behavior is even spookier when she sends another blank to her mother.
No spoilers here. Consult the book for the ending, but don't expect any answers. Despite the breathless promises of the chatty jacket copy, no mystery is solved. Instead, we merely go deeper inside the head of one excruciatingly tortured young girl and don't come out feeling any better for it.
Some readers find this book "fun" and the heroine "plucky." It disturbs me that they don't see how the author has burdened her with unsolvable predicaments. Just one of her issues, such as the alcoholic mother, left unresolved could ruin her adult life forever. Lodato leaves everything lying in pieces. Without serious therapy, this character will never grow up normally, especially with the dark secret she keeps. What's so fun and plucky about that?
Worst of all, Lodato has aimed this book at the wrong target. In a market eager to lap up young adult books at every turn, he writes this one for adults. While this is no Catcher in the Rye, he could have toned down the psychosis a bit and made Mathilda a disaffected teen for the 21st century. Certainly times call out for it. Adults, with their tea parties, oil spills, and climate change, really couldn't care less about Mathilda's concerns.
This one really tries to please but hits wide of the mark. Perhaps Hollywood can do a better job if they remake it and zero in on the teen audience.Powered by Sidelines