2am at the Cats Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

catspBertino`s book frankly was a delight to read from cover to cover with a story that frankly has you cheering and rooting for all her characters. Set in Philadelphia, its a tale about love and lost love, the city`s dreamers, and how sometimes the unwieldy ordinariness and seemingly clock-in and clock-out nature of the city can weigh you down.

The book charts one special Christmas Eve night when our characters through a wending of fate, all end up in the famous jazz club 2am at the Cats Pajamas run by its illustrious owner Jack Francis Lorca, who is considered one of the “finest ears in jazz” and has a certain cool sensibility with a rock and roll swagger and without doubt, a man who has hot-footed out of a few beds as well. Bertino captures the whole appeal of the club as a former celestial body where sun worshippers; musical hipsters and followers alike would all gravitate around; from its glory days to the present day, still going strong now but with a little less verve then its yesteryears. After an encounter with the local enforcement officer, Len Thomas one night, Lorca is issued with a citation with a litany of offences and a large fine to be paid. Can Lorca save the club from being closed down ?

We are also introduced to fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene. She has returned to Philly following a divorce and is invited to a dinner party,that sees her reunited with her old school crush. Will she find love again?

It`s a warm and fuzzy read that grabs you by the collar with great writing, characters beautifully drawn,and with lines that will have you laughing out loud. It is a pacey story that reads well and has a filmic quality about it. Each character`s story whilst connected in some way comes across as a wonderful series of well crafted vignettes which uses Philly as its backdrop.

Whilst there is no real protagonist, young Madeline Altimari, wannabe dancer and singer shimmys her way through the novel, a precocious child with a capital P. She is uber musically- aware with an inate ability to deliver the intricacies of a jazz tune. Just 9 going on 30, she betrays her years with a self discipline and a desire to learn her craft. Desperate to prove she is a better singer than grade-school rival, Clare Kelly she is spurred into action and decides she must take centre stage at the legendary jazz club 2am at The Cats Pajamas. Will she get to achieve her dream?

I loved the fact that Bertino doesn’t bend to the almost Disney- like representations of angelic, butter wouldn’t melt… representations of children in novels. Instead she delivers a character that frankly sings sassy (no pun attended), who can leave you reeling in paper-cuts with Madeline`s “gonna git you sucker” sharp shooting humour as well. “Madeline has no friends: Not because she contains a tender grace that fifth graders detect and loathe. Not because she has a natural ability that points her starward, though she does. Madeline has no friends because she is a jerk.” I defy even the more phlegmatic ones amongst you not to have Bertino make you want to high-five or even bear-hug Madeline.

Sure just as you double up with laughter, she writes lines that are sweet, never saccharine. We discover early on how Madeline`s mother, a former singer had died from cancer. After the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, she leaves behind a set of instructive notes for Madeline on the following; How to make a fist, How to write a thankyou note and on the rules of singing; Know yourself. Its the very rules that she lives by.

Marie Helene Bertino
Marie Helene Bertino
To say that Bertino knows how to deliver a good yarn is an understatement. Her novel will have you double-bending in laughs and then gives you literary bear-hugs with momentary splurges of tendernesss and sentimentality. Granted this is a book without the clever tectonics of a multi-layered plot but frankly it`s all heart with themes of love, wish fulfilment, and achieving the extra-ordinary in the face of the routine grind of the city ” As the local café owner and seemingly the heartbeat of the city`s neighbourhood; Mrs Santiago says; “Not today Philadelphia. Bring your sorry shit back tomorrow…”

2am at the Cats Pajamas by Helene Marie Bertino published by Picador.
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2am at the Cats Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

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