A nine-year-old girl has lost her mother and wants to be a jazz singer. A club owner discovers he may lose his building, and a fifth grade teacher reunites with her high school love. Over the course of a single day (Christmas Eve Eve), Marie-Helene Bertino guides readers through three lives as they move in concert—toward, with, and among one another—in her stunning debut novel 2 AM at The Cat’s Pajamas.
Madeleine Altimari lives in an unkempt apartment with her father who is lost after the death of his wife and floating in a substance-abuse haze. We learn about Madeleine as she shimmies “the world’s most serious shimmy” and listens to Blossom Dearie on the record player in her room. Competitive, serious, and passionate, Madeleine is practicing to prove she is a better singer than grade-school rival, Clare Kelly. Though she is only nine, Madeleine’s rough edges are well formed. “Madeleine prefers to spend this and every recess alone . . . Not because she contains a tender grace that fifth graders detect and loathe. Not because she has a natural ability that points her starward, though she does. Madeleine has no friends because she is a jerk.” All of this happens in the first few pages. A world is constructed. You’re completely drawn in.
The other characters unfold in similar fashion: quickly and fully. Sarina is Madeleine’s fifth grade teacher and is back living in Philly after a divorce. She luckily (or unluckily) runs into a high school friend and is invited over for a dinner party. Her high school love will be there. “‘You should come!’ Georgie’s volume frightens both of them. ‘It’s the old gang.’ Sarina has never been part of a gang.”
Jack Lorca runs the jazz club, a beloved neighborhood gem, which hosts a number of musical misfits with a stalwart following. Like the musicians who play at the club, and much like Lorca’s son Alex who is desperate to prove himself worthy of The Cat’s Pajamas’ stage, the club is loved less for its business savvy than for its style and laissez-faire attitude. As a result, foreclosure looms.
Although brief, these descriptions foretell the trajectory of 2 AM at The Cat’s Pajamas. The character overlaps and straightforward plot risk a predictable ending, but the novel reads fresh as a result of Bertino’s clever writing. The book moves along swiftly, and is highly readable, and Bertino uses 2AM’s sense of predestination as a foundation on which to wow us. It is her own stage, and she thrills with jokes and darkness in perfect measure.
One of the most compelling aspects of 2 AM at The Cat’s Pajamas is Bertino’s ability to capture people, moments, and feelings with a use of language that is all her own. She showcases this talent by guiding characters through a world that she has painted entirely unique. Even the secondary characters are fully imagined. Like Pedro the dog, who is an, “open-air pooch, not prone to evenings at home.” Bertino writes of Pedro as he wanders Philadelphia: “When he moves from one street to the next he feels he is moving more toward himself. He is lonely and knows he is lonely. He is in love but is not sure with whom.” Her writing is spectacular, particularly on the sentence level, enhancing the experience for the reader through a series of punch lines (even tragic ones) that prove her writing is worth every minute of our time. There are too many beautiful examples to list here, but I’ll offer a few as they illustrate what makes reading Bertino’s work just so satisfying. In referring to Madeleine tip-toeing around her father: “She could sneak in there, but she must be quiet, like cancer.” In describing Lorca’s dead father: “We carry our ancestors in our names and sometimes we carry our ancestors through the sliding doors of emergency rooms and either way they are heavy, either way we can’t escape.” And finally, in describing the terrible burden of being catholic: “Madeleine considers escape, but she has attended too many years of Catholic school to run.” It isn’t dense, it isn’t showy, it’s just right. And there are, perhaps, passages just as perfect as these on every page.
In an interview with her publisher Bertino states it took eleven years to write the novel, and there is a real sense of this book having been lived-in. It feels, at times, like a series of love letters: to Philadelphia (even though it tells you to F—K off); to childhood, and how funny and tragic it can be; to life, the way it tests the limits of your love; and also to music. The soundtrack to this novel is jazzy, sad, and upbeat. It rises and falls with these characters, providing not only a lovely background music to the text, but the motivation, solace, and source of happiness for 2 AM’s cast. Bertino is a true master of her craft, and readers will devour her writing. I certainly did. I can’t imagine a person sitting down with this book and not enjoying it.
(For a track list of the songs that are featured in the book, Bertino has curated this list.)
Pub date: August, 2014
Reviewed by Kim Winternheimer