2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
There’s something extremely charming about a miserable, sassy almost-10-year-old bent on living her dream to become a jazz chanteuse.
In Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel, 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas, Madeleine Altimari is no average kid. She’s a potty-mouthed chain smoker, dodging cockroaches in her Philadelphia apartment while her father holes up in his bedroom, nearly catatonic after his wife’s death from cancer. Though Madeleine deeply misses her mom, she has purpose: to find her rightful place onstage, belting out jazz songs to wide acclaim. If only her Catholic school principal hadn’t forbidden her from soloing at morning mass.
Madeleine’s fifth-grade teacher, Sarina Greene, has her own issues. Divorced and newly returned to Philadelphia, she’s anxiously anticipating a dinner party reunion with high school friends. Her high school crush will be there—will there still be sparks after all these years?
Across town, Jack Lorca, the proud and rebellious owner of the once-legendary jazz club the Cat’s Pajamas, needs $30,000, fast. Years of ignored citations have piled up, and the City is threatening to close the joint if he can’t bring it up to code, pronto. His teenage son is skulking around, oblivious that his underage status puts the club at risk, and that his dad may even have to pawn the prize guitar he’s always displayed above the bar.
This inventive novel spans 24 hours, on the eve of Christmas Eve, building to the titular hour when each character converges at the Cat’s Pajamas and magic ensues. Something about the snow-dusted Philadelphia streets, the glimmers of hope and love and the joy of live music creates an atmosphere of “anything can happen.” The author throws in a bit of magical realism to close out the evening with delight.
One appealing aspect of the book is the recipe box of life lessons that Madeleine’s mom left for her: individual cards marked “How to Make a Fist,” “How to Change a Flat” and the #1 rule: “Know Yourself.” Though Madeleine’s dad is incapacitated and neglectful, it’s clear that her mother had great love for her and did her best to prepare Madeleine for her death. Throughout the neighborhood, her mother’s friends watch out for Madeleine, making sure she is fed and has allies.
Bertino is poetic in her description of the city, and shows clear love for the setting despite its gruff exterior. Some of her prose is choppy yet rhythmic, mimicking jazz riffs. The author is often blunt, and she’s observant (“Even jerks have mothers who die”). She also brings humor and a dash of romance to the mix, serving up an altogether enjoyable first novel.
There are many quirky characters to track, and side plots involving the neighbor’s dog Pedro; these could be too much for those who prefer a linear story. However, if you’re in the mood for something slightly subversive and profane but ultimately hopeful, head to the library and check out this book.
Christine Perkins is Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System. She thinks reading is the cat’s pajamas—and encourages everyone to get a library card and participate in the #BookBrainChallenge—what can you do with a book on your head? Visit https://www.wcls.org for details.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, September 28, 2016)