Book Club: 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas

I'm a sucker for cute packaging and as such, I'm also a sucker for a cute book cover which may explain why I was drawn to 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino. As I read through the book, I found myself being rather intrigued by the storytelling, the music, and most importantly the characters.
2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas
By Marie-Helene Bertino
Madeleine Altimari: A foul-mouthed, chain-smoking 9-year-old girl with dreams of becoming a jazz singer like her dearly departed mother. Sarina Greene: Madeleine's teacher who moves back to her hometown of Philadelphia after her divorce and reunites with her high school flame. Jack Lorca: The owner of the historic Cat's Pajamas jazz club who's dealing with the looming threat of having to close his beloved Philly haunt. Marie-Helene Bertino tells the interweaving story of three different characters over the course of one day (Christmas Eve Eve) in her debut novel. 
Madeleine lives in a roach-filled apartment with an absent father after her mother passes away. Clearly this doesn't do much to dampen her lively and spunky spirit. I like how frankly the author describes her - "Madeleine has no friends: Not because she contains a tender grace that fifth graders detest and loathe. Not because she has a natural ability that points her starward, though she does. Madeleine has no friends because she's a jerk." (pg 21-22). The book goes on to describe exactly why she's a jerk (she punches a boy the way her mom taught her when she gets expelled) and though I admit, if I knew a girl like her, I probably wouldn't want to be her friend either, but she was most certainly not an unlikeable character for me. Perhaps it's because she holds on to her dreams of becoming a jazz singer like her mother and whenever she does sing, magical things happen. For me, she is the epitome of "magical realism" and for that I'm invested in her outcome. 
Sarina is helplessly in love with a man she was spurned by during her youth. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) she runs into an old high school friend who invites the two of them over for dinner and her story unfolds. Where Madeleine represents an element of the extraordinary, Sarina's was painfully familiar. Who hasn't felt the sting and lasting hurt of an immature boy? I was incredibly interested in how her evening with Ben turned out and hoped only for a happy one. 
And finally, there's Lorca who is cited for way too many city violations at his club and fined an exorbitant amount of money else risk closing the historic club forever. Lorca was the character I connected to the least - perhaps it's because he's not the most talkative nor expressive of people so I felt his character development a bit lacking compared to the rest of the cast of characters. It's unfortunate because he has the most going on - looming foreclosure of the neighborhood gem, his girlfriend leaving him, and his son (Alex) seeking his approval on the musical stage. 
The book reads a bit like a Wes Anderson movie - whimsical and romantic, complete with a sailor-mouthed kid, and I rather liked the jazzy tone of the novel's pacing. I think what Bertino does well is capturing moments, feelings, and characters through colorful language and imagery. She fleshes out even her secondary characters like Pedro the dog and Ted Stempel. She proves with each word why her book is worth our time - she paints a picture that enhances the reading experience of her novel. You will laugh at her tragically clever punchlines and feel sad with the characters too. While reading, I've definitely stopped to mark clever one-liners and thoughts I've certainly had but was unable to articulate so eloquently.
I did some research on Bertino and it apparently took her over a decade to finish this book. There's definitely a sense of this novel having been well worn-in, like a pair of shoes you love and fits comfortably. It's clear that the author loves Philadelphia and kept all the details and the intricacies of the city in mind while writing this novel. It's equally clear she has a deep appreciation for jazz music. Fun fact: Bertino has created a playlist for this book (that's available on Spotify) and it makes for great listening while reading this book!

I received this book from Blogging for Books for an honest and fair review. All opinions expressed are my own.

1 comment

  1. Dear Deborah, thanks a lot for the review! I think this book with the extraordinary girl is so my taste that I must immediately order to read it! How wonderful you shared the book here :)
    xx from Bavaria/Germany, Rena


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