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

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas is a day in the life of three characters in Philadelphia: Madeleine, a 9-year-old aspiring singer who is mourning her mother’s death; her fifth-grade teacher Sarina, recently divorced and back in town, hoping to reconnect with people from her past; and Lorca, owner of The Cat’s Pajamas, a legendary jazz club in danger of closing.

Madeleine’s story is what kept me reading. She’s got a lot of spunk, a lot of grit. Her father is so crippled with grief that he is barely able to function. She endures rejection at school from both her classmates and her principal. Yet she pushes ahead, determined to find The Cat’s Pajamas and make her debut. You can’t help but fall in love with this kid.

Bertino’s writing is absolutely ravishing, just breathtaking. There are times when the rhythm of her words is downright musical, as smooth as listening to John Coltrane.

However, I found myself wanting more of a focus on Madeleine. I liked how the three characters came together, but that wasn’t enough. Madeleine’s story was so compelling, it made me wish Sarina and Lorca were minor characters instead. Unfortunately, they didn’t hold my interest.

I went into 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas with high expectations, but I felt it lacked some of the elements that captivated me in Bertino’s collection of short stories, Safe as Houses, which I read last year. There aren’t as many strange, fantastical moments in this debut novel; it is much more subdued. So when something extraordinary occurs at the end, something that normally would have me holding my breath in awe, it didn’t feel all that magical. It just felt out of place. Huge letdown.

Although this fell flat for me, the things that worked, I loved. I anticipate feeling just as enthusiastic about Bertino’s future works as I was for this one.

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