Review: 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

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It’s late at night and I’m sleepy (but also hungry?) so bear with me here.

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas is the story of a little girl, Madeleine (10 years old two days from now), her caregivers, and a jazz club. Madeleine loves to sing. She loves it so much it burns her up inside. Her mother taught her how. But, Madeleine’s mother has passed away, her father has descended into addiction and depression, and Madeleine has been lashing out. She’s no longer allowed to sing at school assemblies or mass and on Christmas Eve Eve, the opportunity to do so is dangled in front of her face and then yanked away. Frustrated and tired of being picked on, Madeleine punches one of the boys at school and is sent home, expelled.

Across town, The Cat’s Pajamas, a once famous and successful jazz club is dilapidated and has been written up by the city. One more ordinance violation and they’re gone. Lorcas, the owner, isn’t really able to shoulder the responsibilities he knows he needs to face. His kid is talented, but wild. His friends are reliable, but creaky and not without their own set of morals. The police are now breathing down his back and there’s no way he’s going to be able to come up with the money to pay it.

It’s pretty fated.

This is Bertino’s second novel. It’s got a unique sense of style and a compelling format. The characters are interesting, though it’s more character than plot driven.

Madeleine is spunky and doesn’t really care what the adults in her life expect of her. She does as asked, but not without resistance and does so inconsistently. She’s pouty and mean to the other kids. Despite that, she was likeable. The only problem I had was that there were times when Madeleine’s behavior and personality were much more suited to an older child. She was flippant in a way that read less like a ten year old and more like a rebellious fourteen or fifteen year old.

I’ll admit, I sometimes wondered whether there was enough insight into Madeleine’s reactions to her father’s absence and abuse. Madeleine didn’t seem to have any anger, disappointment, or resentment towards him checking out after her mother died. It had really only been a year and Madeleine seems to disregard the change in many ways, with the exception of a few brief moments where her father is violent. It seemed strange to me that Bertino didn’t focus just a bit more on the effect that the change might have on Madeleine’s behavior.

Madeleine’s teacher Sarina was fun and her struggles with reading situations and to cope with what happened to Madeleine (expulsion) over what Sarina believes to be a minor infraction was interesting to watch. I enjoyed watching her bop about town with Ben, her old fling. I was a bit confused at the comfort she seemed to have with her ex-husband Marcos, but not so much that I was taken out of the storyline. People come to places of peace, after all.

The fate of The Cat’s Pajamas was, I thought, well handled and a fitting way to end the night. The storyline on that front was satisfying. I do wish, though, that the ending had actually been the last scene with Madeleine rather than ending with Sarina. Oh well.

The writing itself was generally solid. It was a bit disjointed. Bertino uses a lot of fragmented sentences and some strange descriptors. I’m not sure how a group of brownstones can rise up around another building “like soiled clouds.” At times the fragmented descriptions read well, but it was pretty hit or miss.

Overall, I gave this one a three. I enjoyed parts of it, but the strange characterizations and descriptors put me off. I liked the timeline presentation and the focus on multiple characters, but it sometimes seemed like the balance between storylines was a bit off.

I received this book for free for an honest review from bloggingforbooks.com

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