2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas
By Marie-Helene Bertino
Crown Publishers, Aug. 2014 (hardcover)
Broadway Books, Oct. 2015 (softcover)
288 pages, $15.00
Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, was a real sleeper. I’d purchased a copy when it was published in August 2014 but somehow never got around to reading it (too many books means some of them occasionally get lost in the crowd). That’s a shame because it is a terrific book that I enjoyed from start to finish.
As with classics like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and recent novels like Anne Korkeakivi’s An Unexpected Guest and Maya Lang’s The Sixteenth of June, Bertino’s story takes place in a single day, this time Christmas Eve eve. (And like Lang’s book, it is also set in Philadelphia.) It is primarily the story of nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari, whose mother has recently succumbed to cancer and whose father is so depressed he can’t get out of bed.
But feisty little Madeleine has not been left entirely to her own devices; neighbors in her inner-city neighborhood who loved her mother are keeping an eye on her in various ways. Elderly Rose Santiago of Santiago’s Cafe feeds and fusses over her, a surrogate grandmother. Vince Sherry, owner of Beauty Land salon, and his hair stylists are an alternate family of cool characters (and cut Madeleine’s hair). And Sarina Greene, her young teacher at Saint Anthony of the Immaculate Heart, has taken a special interest in her “orphaned” charge.
Madeleine has been raised on the record collection of her jazz-obsessed father and deeply influenced by her mother’s local singing career. She is an old soul who listens to and sings the songs of Billie Holiday and Blossom Dearie and wants more than anything to be a jazz singer herself.
Bertino’s story also follows the recently divorced Miss Greene, who has returned to Philly and been invited to join some old school friends for a dinner party by an old friend she bumps into that morning at Santiago’s Cafe. Her old boyfriend, Ben, will be there. And over in gritty Fishtown, Jack Francis Lorca is in danger of losing his legendary but seedy jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas, unless he can come up with $30,000 to pay off a mountain of city fines for every violation one can imagine.
The narrative bounces among these three characters through short, vibrant chapters filled with humor and heart. The dialogue is snappy and distinctly “Philly,” the characters are rough-edged but endearing (but not caricatures), and the plotting cleverly weaves everyone and everything together, leading up to a memorable late night finale at the Cat’s Pajamas.
Bertino manages to both pull on your heartstrings and make you laugh your head off. Cat’s Pajamas was the perfect follow-up to the intensity and heartbreak of Nayomi Munaweera’s brilliant What Lies Beneath, a palate cleanser of the best kind. I genuinely liked and cared about these characters, and I find myself still wondering what they are up to and how they are doing.
I wouldn’t be upset if Bertino decided to write a sequel. She has a winning combination of characters and setting here, with a compelling narrative voice that brings it all to life.