Madeleine, a brassy 9-year-old girl with an exquisite singing voice and a grim home life; Sarina, a lonely, divorced fifth-grade teacher hoping for a second chance with a childhood crush; and Lorca, the world-weary owner of a jazz club who fears he’s about to lose everything—these flawed yet deeply sympathetic characters come together in Marie-Helene Bertino’s 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas, a lovely new novel that manages to be both devastating and uplifting, filled with humor, painful truths, and moments of dazzling beauty.
The story follows the timeline of a single, eventful day and night—in Philadelphia, on the eve of Christmas Eve—during a turning point in each of the melancholy yet hopeful lives of these memorable main players. As they cross paths with one other, as well as with a colorful supporting cast—which includes a jaded school principal and a headstrong little dog with a case of wanderlust—each scene, framed as a short, glittering vignette, both clashes and harmonizes with the others, like the disparate instruments and melodies of a jazz number. In fact, the prose is so elegant it often feels musical, particularly the occasional repetition of a certain turn of phrase, serving as the novel’s chorus.
The appreciation of music is a theme that helps tie everything together. There’s Madeleine’s passionate love of singing, inherited from her talented mother, whose recent passing has left the young girl and her father adrift. All Madeleine wants, with the pure tenacity of a determined nine year old with nothing to lose, is to sing in front of an audience. Then there’s Lorca’s musically gifted teenaged son, Alex, who longs to play at his father’s jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas—and who longs even more for his father’s approval. Lorca is desperate to strengthen his relationship with Alex, whom he fears is slipping away into a dangerous world, but he struggles to show his affection. Finally, there are Lorca’s musician buddies, hard-living and wayward men who nonetheless are formidable onstage. It’s the rare writer who is able to make a jazz number come alive, but Bertino’s descriptions of the transcendent musical performances at The Cat’s Pajamas are enchanting.
These characters are simultaneously compelling and frustrating, each struggling in their own way to be understood, to connect, to find meaning and purpose in their lives, to be recognized for their strengths and loved despite their shortcomings. As they reach out tentatively toward one another, their encounters are fraught with very human misunderstandings that frequently cause them to wound each other, inadvertently pushing away those they most care about.
It’s not easy to balance an ensemble cast, moving from one character to another while holding the reader’s interest and attention, but the characters and scenes in 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas are woven together so seamlessly, and intertwine with such effortless serendipity, that the reader is carried breathlessly forward no matter who is narrating.
Bertino’s writing is poignant, yet still playful—filled with witty, smart (and smart aleck) characters who play off one another brilliantly. Her debut novel, filled with startlingly incisive observations about love and loss that will move an unsuspecting reader to tears, is not to be missed.