Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: 2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

Composed like a song with a central melody and harmonies weaving in and out plus solo spotlight moments for each of the members in the band, 2 a. m. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino mimics the jazz that is so central to its story. Nine year old Madeleine Altimari is the central melody. Her jazz singer mother recently died of cancer, leaving her father so wrapped in his own grief that he not only completely retreats to his room and withdraws from life as entirely as possible while still living but he needs Madeleine to take care of him rather than the other way around. So Madeleine is left to her own devices with only the help of the extensive cast of neighborhood friends who promised her mother to look out for her. Madeleine is a smart and precocious child with a passion for jazz. She wants nothing more than to sing and she works every day to perfect her voice. But being only 9, she must also go to school, in her case the local Catholic school where she's not well liked. Madeleine is not a perfect and innocent lamb though. She's as intolerant of those around her as they are of her. She curses like a sailor and she is busily smoking through the cigarettes her mother left behind. When Madeleine is abruptly expelled from school, she turns her attention to finding out where in Philadelphia the once renowned jazz bar The Cat's Pajamas is located and how she'll get herself there.

Madeleine's teacher, Sarina Green, is one of the harmonies weaving in and out of Madeleine's story. Sarina is newly returned to Philly after her divorce. She feels great sympathy for Madeleine and offers her kindness not out of a loyalty to Madeleine's mother but because Madeleine is an underdog, a child who needs someone in her corner. Sarina is floundering in her own life, reeling in the aftermath of the divorce, and when she meets an old acquaintance from school who invites her to a dinner party, she finds herself saying yes despite misgivings. And when she hears that her old high school crush is also going to be at the party, she must face her long-held feelings for him and her secret hope for the future.

Then there's Jack Francis Lorca. He's the owner of The Cat's Pajamas and this Christmas Eve Eve day is not turning out at all the way he'd want. He wakes to a police officer knocking on the club's door and handing him a ticket for city ordinance violations to the tune of $30,000, a sum of money there's little chance he can find in the 30 days given to him. His girlfriend, an exotic dancer, has left him and he can't seem to connect with his sixteen year old son, getting it wrong every time and missing the signs that his son is on the verge of choosing the wrong life.

The novel is broken down in time increments, seguing through Madeleine's, Sarina's, and Lorca's day and on into the night, ticking slowly down to 2 a. m. at the Cat's Pajamas and beyond. There are occasional other narrators as well when they are needed to flesh out happenings that the main three wouldn't otherwise be able to share with the reader. And as disparate as the three plot threads seem to be, as with any good melody and harmonies, they weave in and out of each other, making connections throughout the novel instead of just coming together in the end. Each character in this tightly knit story is completely believable, from independent and prickly Madeleine's childlike grading of her own singing practice to Sarina's insecurities to Lorca's tough exterior. With the novel occurring over a span of 24 hours, it is much like a song or the daily life cycle of a bar: a slow introduction or lull before bursting into hopping action. There are not entirely necessary flashes of magical realism, like what happens to people when Madeleine sings and a character literally drifting away. The pacing is a little slow before the convergence at The Cat's Pajamas and the multiple narrators and the rapidity with which their point of view ends and another narrator takes the reins can be a bit tricky. But it's an interesting novel and the individual riffs do ultimately come together to make a satisfying whole.

For more information about Marie-Helene Bertino and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, her Twitter feed, or the book's Goodreads page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. "Composed like a song...." What a PERFECT way to describe this book! I have read "2 AM at the Cat's Pajamas", too, and was struggling with a way to express my thoughts.

  2. Hoping to try the audio of this one soon. i do like the sound of it.

  3. I'm glad that things came together in the end for you! Thanks for being a part of the tour.


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