Wednesday, July 30, 2014

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

I received this book in exchange for an honest review through Blogging for Books.

Summary: Madeleine Altimari's mother is dead, and the world is a tough place for the brash nine-year-old kid, who is an aspiring jazz singer. Bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia's legendary jazz club The Cat's Pajamas, where she's determined to make her on-stage debut. On the same day, her fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene, who's just moved back to Philly after a divorce, is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old high school crush, Ben Allen, afraid to hope that sparks might fly again. And across town at The Cat's Pajamas, club owner Lorca discovers that his beloved haunt may have to close forever.

My thoughts: Philadelphia, if I'd known the setting of the novel, lived there and recognized the street names, and the mood, this book would have been something else. It's is a very atmospheric read, and Bertino knows just how to tickle your senses with her words. The book begins with a snowfall:

Snow flurries fall in the city. Actors walking home from a cast party on Broad Street try to catch them on their tongues. The ingenue lands a flake on her hot cheek and erupts into a fit of laughter. In Fishtown a nightmare trembles through the nose and paws of a dog snoozing under construction flats. The Rittenhouse Square fountain switches to life with a pronouncement of water while Curtis Hall musicians, late for final rehearsal, arpeggiate through the park. 
The flurries somersault, reconsider, double back. The alleys of 9th Street bear witness as they softly change their minds.

2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino is just what the title promises, a novel made up of cozy warmth and chirpy, quirky characters. It's a light read, the kind of book you'd finish in a day and savour through the next, a perfect travel companion. Even its corniness has a charm.

The last time Gus sees Alessandra is through the elbows and arms of her brothers and sisters who force themselves in between them. 
That's a drummer's love story. If you want a prettier one, you'll be waiting forever. If you could separate your body into four distinct rhythms, you'll be cracked too.

But under all its wry quirkiness, the book has a poignant message. Each character is a real person, with their faults and failings. Madeleine is a jerk, a smarth-mouthed, prank-pulling, arrogant jerk, who'd have had her own gang in school had she not hated to be around other kids so much. Sarina Greene is awkward, obsessive and paranoid, plagued with little concerns and self-doubts. Jack Lorca is about to lose his jazz club, his girlfriend and has not only lost but never managed to make any connection with his son. Three lives, and more, converge at 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas and you realize that the story is about bad things happening to bad people, and bad people trying to be good. It's about people who've made mistakes, people who haven't been their best trying to improve, to make good on promises. Because, even jerks have mothers who die. 

Cat's pajamas - that's what brings these odd protagonists together, literally and otherwise. Google helped me out right when I got the book, cat's pajamas refers to a great new thing or more specifically here - and please correct me if I'm wrong - a person who is the best at what he does. Madeleine is an amazing singer, the nine year old Blossom Dearie fan is self-taught and inspired by her dancer mother and practices with a diligence that we're unlikely to associate with spoilt brat who sneaks her mother's smokes. Sarina Greene for all her idiotic clumsiness really cares about her students, is passionate and has suffered enough losses in her life to be wary of appreciation. Jack Lorca has practically given up on his club, his girlfriend and his son, and it makes him miserable. It's the last night of his career, The Cat's Pajamas will be shut down if it stays open after 2. A.M. Nostalgia, melancholy and love - the author knows how to express each.

His father is already dead by the time Lorca reaches him, beer unspooling around him, eyes fixed on some fascination under the bar. Lorca gathers him in his arms.
Gathers him in his name - Jack Francis Lorca.
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.

Not wholly ironically, I did find faults in the book. The meandering story, the present tense narration and the flitting points of view are not for everybody. The book could have done without a few characters and the stories within stories, though endearing, give it the aura of a short story collection. The cover title "2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas, a novel" suddenly seems to be trying to prove a point. 

I love magic realism when it works, but this abruptly fantastical ending just isn't one of those times. Its incongruity only makes me a tougher judge of the rest of the book. The end is not the place to experimental with a new style. The last impression, if unfairly, matters most. And mine is more of an "Eh!" than I wanted.

You can pre-order this book here

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