Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Mathilda Savitch"

Victor Lodato is a playwright and poet. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, and has won numerous awards for his plays, including one from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays.

He applied the Page 69 Test to Mathilda Savitch, his debut novel, and reported the following:
The novel is written in the voice of a fiercely precocious child, the thirteen-year-old Mathilda Savitch. A year before the book begins, Mathilda's beloved older sister, Helene, is killed--pushed in front of a train by a man still on the loose. Mathilda has been anticipating, with a kind of manic intensity, the one-year anniversary of her sister's death. And, on page 69, we find ourselves, precisely, on the night before the "big day," as Mathilda calls it. Up until this point, Mathilda has been hell on wheels: breaking dishes, lying, smoking, getting into fights at school--doing everything in her power to wake up her parents, who, by her estimation, have turned into zombies. Mathilda's badness seems to have no bounds, but, on page 69, she's exhausted, and some vulnerability is beginning to seep through the tough exterior.

In the car with her parents, heading home after a night at the theater, she's not feeling well. Lying across the back seat, with her mother's sweater wrapped around her head, she tells us:

Ma's sweater had perfume on it, the kind I love that smells like powder, but tonight it just made me sicker. I thought I heard Ma and Da whispering at one point but when I poked my head out of the sweater I realized it was just the radio. Da had put it on real low. It was the voices of strangers.

I have to get out of here, I thought. I started crying but I swallowed it.

"What are you eating?" Ma said.

That's when I stopped breathing. I made myself into a dead person.

But then I had to breathe again, I couldn't help myself.

For most of the book, Mathilda is at odds with her mother, whom she loves desperately, but at whom she's furious for having abandoned her, physically and emotionally, after Helene's death. Mathilda's feelings of isolation, of being trapped on the "island of grief," to borrow the narrator's phrase, are clearly defined in this excerpt. But the tone of this page is a little more melancholy than usual. Mathilda is often involved in some prank or scheme that keeps her in a more lively, even comedic, mode. And, later in the book, she'll be back to her old tricks--especially after she breaks into Helene's still active e-mail account, and begins to uncover information about her sister's secret life. But here, on page 69, she's too weak to play games, and the undeniable gravity of her family's position overtakes her:

When we were pulling into the driveway I saw Da's eyes in the mirror. I guess he saw me as well. We looked at each other for a second, and with the mirror between us it was almost like the truth was coming out.

It was so big I bowed my head. I threw up in the car. Everything started to spin, and then time went funny again. A few years passed or maybe they went backwards because the next thing I knew, Da was carrying me into the house and putting me to bed. Which is something he used to do a million years ago when I was a baby. When I was the angel of the world. When we were the luckiest people ever to live on the face of the Earth.
Watch the video trailer for Mathilda Savitch and learn more about the book at the Farrar, Straus and Giroux website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue