Book Review: In Print: Texas Book Festival Authors

In Mathilda Savitch's best stretches, it is a marvel of observational acuity and lyrical phrasing

In Print: Texas Book Festival Authors

Mathilda Savitch: A Novel

by Victor Lodato
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 304 pp.; $25

I don't know how one is meant to pronounce the last name of the titular Mathilda – a long "a"? an uptick on the -itch? – but in my mind, it rings close to "savage." That sounds about right for preteen Mathilda, who narrates: She can be vicious, yes, but, in the more primal sense, she's a wild child, wracked by grief and bewilderment over the death of her radiant older sister, Helene, and furiously acting out. Her parents – a kind but ineffective father, a bathrobed mother with bottles stashed around the house – are practically zombies. And as if growing up wasn't complicated enough, Mathilda's already uneasy puberty is colored by the nightly news of terrorist attacks, which engenders a constant state of anxiety and peril that she internalizes and even sexualizes, even though she admits she doesn't entirely understand what's going on (of a recent suicide bombing, she says, "It's getting to be a big problem over there in one of those problematic countries").

In many ways, Mathilda is a child putting on like she's an adult, and Lodato, a poet and playwright in his fiction debut, creates in her an unforgettable voice. His Mathilda is an acerbic wit, yet is capable of great rushes of compassion; she is plainspoken, but given to the most lovely, left-field reflections. Recalling the way her parents were before Helene's death, Mathilda says, "Da gave Ma the kind of kisses that linger, and afterwards she looked like someone who'd just had a bath." The book's first passage (out of four) is its strongest: a marvel of observational acuity and lyrical phrasing.

But as the terror backdrop comes more to the fore and Mathilda grows increasingly unhinged, the novel loses its forward thrust. Her endless bad decisions and the havoc they wreak are exhausting, to the point where she begins slipping away not just from her parents but from the reader. (There is also a rather major irritant in the fact that Lodato waits a full 147 pages to reveal his narrator to be unreliable – a bit too long to hold his cards, I think.) But the book rebounds in its more tightly plotted last passage, where Mathilda takes a train ride to find answers about her sister's death and finds herself – the child putting on like she's an adult – at a crossroads that is inevitable but still pained: "This is where grownups live, and suddenly I'm afraid I'll have to stay here forever."


Victor Lodato will appear at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday, Nov. 1, (12:30-1:30pm, Capitol Extension, Room E2.012) on the panel American Short Fiction and TBF Present Possessed: Characters With Magnificent Obsessions. For more info, visit www.texasbookfestival.org.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Book Reviews
<i>Presidio</i> by Randy Kennedy
Presidio by Randy Kennedy
For his debut novel, Kennedy creates a road story that portrays the harsh West Texas terrain beautifully and fills it with sympathetic characters.

Jay Trachtenberg, Sept. 14, 2018

Hunting the Golden State Killer in <i>I'll Be Gone in the Dark</i>
Hunting the Golden State Killer in I'll Be Gone in the Dark
How Michelle McNamara tracked a killer before her untimely death

Jonelle Seitz, July 20, 2018

More by Kimberley Jones
Recipe: Percolator Punch
Recipe: Percolator Punch
This heavenly smelling treat is a great alternative to apple cider

Nov. 26, 2021

We Have an Issue: Artistic Creation Can Happen Anywhere
We Have an Issue: Artistic Creation Can Happen Anywhere
TikTok viral hitmakers, an old-school columnist who writes to live – this week it’s all about making art no matter what

Nov. 26, 2021

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Book Festival, Victor Lodato, Mathilda Savitch

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle