Tuesday, August 19, 2014

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

Sometimes you just get lucky and come across a terrific book by accident. That was the case with this delightful story which I devoured in two sittings and longed for more. Bertino is the author of the short story collection Safe As Houses, which received considerable praise and several awards. 2 A.M pubbed just this month.

"It is dark, dark 7 am on Christmas Eve Eve" the book begins and, in a linear fashion, concludes close to the time in the title. We are lucky to meet 9 year old Madeleine Altimari, a cigarette-smoking, budding jazz singer as she practices in front of the mirror and grades herself harshly. Her mother has died a year before and her father has withdrawn from the world in his grief. Mrs. Rose Santiago, a neighborhood shopkeeper, looks after Madeleine but mostly the kid is raising herself. 

She yearns to sing at her school, St. Anthony of the Immaculate Heart, but that's never going to happen. Her rival, Clare Kelly, always gets to lead the class at Mass. Madeleine hates the way Clare sings, entirely without soul. The bright spot of the coming day is that her class will be making caramel apples. Madeleine has never had one and wants to try one desperately. While I was immediately smitten with Madeleine, her yearning for a caramel apple was where I knew Bertino had me on the hook. This poor child, with all the grief and loss and disappointment that hangs over her like the inkiest of clouds, and she still has that child-like intensity for something so simple.  

From there we move through the day and several Philadelphia neighborhoods. We are introduced to a number of colorful characters but the three main threads that tie together 2 A.M. are Madeleine, her teacher, Sarina Greene, and Lorca, owner of the jazz club, the Cat's Pajamas. Each has their own worries. Miss Greene, a recent divorcee, is attending a dinner party that night with old friends including an ex-beau. Lorca may lose the club by closing time (2 A.M.) if he can't raise the money to offset serious violations brought on by a new, by-the-book, neighborhood cop. 

Bertino has a light touch and a wonderful way with words. Some readers may find some of the storylines a little too tidy but the story is such fun, these minor issues are easy to overlook. Besides, not everyone has to write The bloody Goldfinch. Where the writing shines most is in the humor and pathos surrounding Madeleine. She has the mouth of a dock worker, the burning desire to sing torch songs, and the pain and sadness of a little girl who has lost one parent to death and the other to grief. The other characters that people the novel are inspired and interesting, full of tics and truths, but if I had my choice, I wanted MORE Madeleine. Which leads to the question I must ask aloud: can we expect more Madeleine, Ms. Bertino? Are you through with this marvelous character or will we be lucky enough to cross paths with her again? I can only hope so.

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