2AM at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
Pub. Date: August 5, 2014
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, Crown!!)
Summary: Madeleine Altimari is a smart-mouthed, precocious nine-year-old and an aspiring jazz singer. As she mourns the recent death of her mother, she doesn’t realize that on Christmas Eve Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary day—and night—of her life. After 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, 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, unless someone can find a way to quickly raise the $30,000 that would save it.
As these three lost souls search for love, music and hope on the snow-covered streets of Philadelphia, together they will discover life’s endless possibilities over the course of one magical night.
Genre: Adult, Fiction, Contemporary
This goose-pimply gold star of a night!
Earlier in the year I read – and loved – Tiffany Schmidt’s Bright Before Sunrise, my first one-day novel. Since then, I have been craving another story told entirely in one 24 hour period (is there a fancy term for this??) and 2AM at The Cat’s Pajamas immediately caught my eye.
Told from 7AM Christmas Eve Eve to 7AM Christmas Eve, 2AM at The Cat’s Pajamas follows three characters as they, in turn, follow their dreams. Madeleine Altimari, hands-down my favorite 9-year-old, is still grieving her mother’s death and her father is locked away in his own grief. The only thing her mother left behind, apart from a love of singing and jazz music, is a recipe box full of things Madeleine needs to know: not just practical things like how to fix a flat tire and tips on writing a thank-you card for a gift you hate, but reminders for Madeleine to do what scares her (and to bring a scarf). On Christmas Eve Eve, Madeleine finds herself expelled from school and takes her mother’s words to heart: she’ll show that awful Claire Kelly. She doesn’t need to sing hymns in front of the class, she’ll sing onstage at the famed jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas.
Madeleine’s teacher, newly-divorced Sarina Greene, accepts an invitation for a party she doesn’t really want to attend, but she’s hoping to catch a glimpse of Ben, her high-school crush. Their one night together for Senior Prom ended in disaster: Ben’s brother’s “helpful seduction tips” led to other girls being complimented the entire dance while Sarina was ultimately ignored. It’s been years since that night and years since the two have spoken and they hesitantly side-step their way around the past, toeing a fine line.
In its heyday, The Cat’s Pajamas was the finest jazz club in the city. Three owners later (passed down from the grandfather to the father to the son), it still manages to attract a crowd, though nothing like the old days. Lorca’s girlfriend recently left, his son desperately wants to play at the club and has gotten mixed up in girls and drugs, and a no-nonsense police officer hand delivered a Shut Down notice effective the following day unless $30,000 magically appears. The band members have all taken to crashing in a backroom at the club; there’s no way any of them has a extra $30,000 dollars lying around and Lorca certainly doesn’t have that kind of cash. The only thing left of value is a rare guitar on full display, easily worth a pretty penny. Mongoose, the owner of the city’s reigning club, would be all-too-willing to hand over the cash, but could Lorca bear to part with it?
Clocking in at a mere 250 pages, 2AM at The Cat’s Pajamas is a brilliant, slim thing of a novel. Although I felt Madeleine was the breakaway star of the show, the other characters (a pitbull named Malcolm, a neighbor who takes care of Madeleine, the school’s principal) were just as captivating and at no point did I struggle or suffer through one storyline to get back to another I preferred. That the threads eventually intertwined made the book all the more special and I quickly devoured it.
I will admit that for a good portion of the novel, I wasn’t sure about the era. It definitely reads like an old jazz club from the 40s, all smoke and crooning, so bravo Ms. Bertino! Apart from a throwaway line mentioning a touch screen on a cell phone, I could have easily believed 2AM at The Cat’s Pajamas took place decades ago (to be honest, I like that idea more than the story taking place today).
There are a few lines repeated throughout the novel and while I can see readers being turned off by this, I personally loved it. It drove home the interconnecting stories, the idea that We’re All In This Together, and the peek into the inner thoughts of secondary characters was perfection. Sarina and Ben clearly have feelings for each other after all these years, but they’re too scared and worried and (in Ben’s case) ashamed to voice their hopes. While Sarina has no idea Ben cares for her, the reader is in on it, and it tore me apart that they couldn’t see what was in front of them. I wanted to reach into the pages and give them both a good shaking – open your eyes!!
The ending left me a little empty – and a lot confused. I’m very satisfied with the way everything worked out for the characters (particularly Madeleine, my sassy little love!), but the final scene was so out-of-nowhere and had a bit of a whimsical, magical element that I normally would love, but with the rest of the novel firmly rooted in reality, it completely threw me off balance and took me out of the story. I still don’t know what it was meant to represent, if anything. If it hadn’t been for those few pages, 2AM at The Cat’s Pajamas would have been a perfectly delicious novel.
Chock-full of metaphory goodness, 2AM at The Cat’s Pajamas beautifully weaves together three storylines gravitating around a past-its-prime jazz club. The novel’s Old World feel perfectly suited the smokey barroom. The secondary characters were just as intriguing as the key figures and the foul-mouthed nine-year-old at the center of it all quickly became a favorite of mine. With it’s catchy title and gripping characters, I can easily see this novel gaining a following, maybe not in the mainstream media, but underground – and I don’t see that as a bad thing at all! This is a special novel that I’ll have at the ready whenever someone asks for a solid story, but without all the hype and fanfare.