2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas
By Marie-Helene Bertino
This quirky novel, set in Philadelphia, tells the stories of multiple characters, over the course of one day.
Madeleine is a 9-year old girl who recently lost her mother and just had a really bad day at school. She also loves jazz and dreams to be a singer. Sarina is Madeleine’s teacher who recently moved back to Philadelphia (where she grew up) after a divorce, and is invited to attend a dinner party with old high school friends, including the boy she went to senior prom with. And Jack Francis Lorca owns the Cat’s Pajamas, a jazz club in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, which is on the verge of getting closed down by the police for violating city codes. The day is December 23rd, the eve of Christmas Eve. This is a fun novel that moves quickly through this one day, from 7:10 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. the next morning, alternating between the lives of the three characters above, and a few more. Each chapter is titled with a time stamp.
I was most drawn to Sarina, as I felt her story, a single woman returning to her hometown, was pretty moving. But Madeleine is a charming young girl struggling to find her place in the world, and Lorca, and his band of musicians, are a lot of fun, and are also coping with what might be the last night their jazz club will be open. I wanted to keep moving through the day with all the characters to see what was going to happen at 2 a.m.! Having lived in Philadelphia, I enjoyed reading a book that captures the unique life of its neighborhoods, in particular the Italian Market and Fishtown. Bertino also captures the small town feel that one gets in Philadelphia. And I liked how jazz was woven into the story, as I have fond memories of the jazz clubs in Philadelphia. This book is a good read with a satisfying ending.
Bertino is from Philadelphia and now lives in New York. In this interview she discusses her process writing the book, and her career as a writer.
I received an e-copy of this book via NetGalley.
The Center for Fiction announced the short list for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. They tend to recognize unique debuts, and I have found they often select books that address social issues. One of the books, The Enchanted, by Rene Denfeld, I will be reviewing later this fall. It is a moving and fairytale-esque book about a man on death row and the mitigation specialist and priest who work in his prison.
A couple of the books on the list, Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson and We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas have gotten widely reviewed and Thomas’s book has already made it on to the NYTs hardback list.
Two other titles that stood out to me are:
The Great Glass Sea, by Josh Weil is a story of two brothers who live and work in a futuristic Russian town that is covered in glass, as if it were an enormous greenhouse. When they come in contact with the owner of their town their relationship is challenged in a way it has never been before.
Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique is a multi-genearational family story set in the Virgin Islands. Told in alternating voices the book tells the story of both the family and the islands where they live.
The winner of the prize will be announced at an event in early December. They have a nice tradition of having the previous year’s winner present the award to the new winner. The event also includes readings from all of the short-listed books.
By Emily Rubin
Mariner Books, 2011
Stalina moves from Russia to Hartford, Connecticut in 1991, when she is in her early 50s, leaving her aging mother behind. She lives with a Russian friend, Amalia, and although she worked as a scientist at home, finds her niche working as a housekeeper at the Liberty Motel, a short-stay motel, where she becomes inspired to decorate rooms by themes—the Roller Coaster Fun Park Room or the Caribbean Sunset Room. After living in the U.S. for two years she encounters an old Russian friend, Nadia, who she has not seen since childhood, who leads her to discover a secret about her parents, and in particular her father, who died in a labor camp when she was growing up.
This is a quirky novel, which captures a unique immigrant story—a single woman moving to this country on her own, with no family to make a new home with. The book also recounts moments from her life growing up Jewish in Leningrad with parents who named her Stalina as a joke. (At a time when Stalin was sending Jews to Siberia her parents gave her her name with the hope, “he would never harm his namesake.”) Rubin is a funny and poetic writer who creates an idiosyncratic character in Stalina. This book is character driven and is highly imaginative and engaging. Stalina is a warm and sympathetic character to spend time with. And the book comes to a touching end.
Rubin lives in New York and is the host of the Dirty Laundry reading series, where she curates readings in New York City laundromats.
I was given a copy of this book by the author.