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


OH HI GUYS, I’m back! Shelf Esteem, previously housed at Domestic Sluttery, is now on my own doorstep, which means I can write each review while doing helpful things like bothering Cat Brown and de-candle waxing the mantelpiece (that last is not a euphemism but something I actually did last weekend, but wouldn’t it be a great euphemism?).

It means that at the end of the year I have a record of what I’ve read, enjoyed and deeply loathed. It also means that I keep on reading – I got into an appalling rut a couple of years back where I had run out of enthusiasm, and having to read a book a fortnight at least has meant that I am excited about what’s coming out, as well as revisiting what are on my own shelves.

I took a break from reading after DS closed, and have got stuck in again. First up is a gift from Francesca at Picador, for which huge thanks. “It’s quirky and funny and a bit magic,” she said on her postcard, written in the sort of handwriting that I long to have, instead of my dancing spider scrawl. Let’s read on.

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
Shelf worth: 4/5

Before I’d even turned a page, I thought I’d got this pegged. Whimsy! Navy blue whimsy, possibly with some jazz, definitely with a heroine with long curling hair who looks great in weirdly-named nightwear like ‘peignoir’, and yearns, yearns for something more than her impoverished existence which probably involves a fire escape with a magical view of New York City.

I was mostly entirely wrong.

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas (I’ve got it on cut and paste so I will damn well use that title as much as possible) is a day in the life of, similar in style to Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Rather than following one life, you get the lives of Philadelphia residents one recent Christmas Eve Eve, some of whom appear just the once, but all having an effect on the others.

  • Madeleine is nine, a friendless daughter of jazz. She lives with her inattentive widower father, with a timetable of singing exercises and life advice from her mother’s list for company.
  • Her school art teacher, Sarina Green, is lonely – forced to move back to her childhood city after divorce, and flinching from the memory of her disastrous school prom.
  • Lorca owns the once legendary jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas. He’s being threatened with closure and has to find impractical sums of money.
  • His teenage son Alex is too thin, rapidly becoming estranged from his dad, and just wants to play guitar.
  • A chorus of flotsam, jetsam, helpers, kids and irreputable jazz musicians floats in and out.

As peignoir-imminent as the cover is, this is a story with few soft edges. Bertino’s writing is unapologetic about not fluffing things up for you; she has written a book, not a bowl of chocolate, and it marks off each passing hour with uncertainty, humour and snow, as well as endings: happy and otherwise. You think you’ll love Madeleine like Orphan Annie, then Bertino points out that Madeleine is a jerk, and that’s why she has no friends at school.

The sentences are often so abrupt that I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was allowed to enjoy myself, or just appreciate it, until the later chapters when Bertino’s writing, which has always threatened to be really bloody brilliant, becomes as strong and all-consuming as Angela Carter, sweeping you to a finale that has real touches of magic about it, as well as reality. Sarina’s long-lost love interest is uncertain: she seems to have a much better relationship with her ex-husband Marcos – and actually, I loved that relationship. Not all exes are monsters, and not all new loves are Cary Grant.

Snow curls throughout from the first pages, sweeping you along with it, and then slapping you round the face whenever you get misty-eyed. I’m still thinking about this story, this city and everyone in it. Like my own, beloved London, I don’t need to like every minute of it to think it’s quite amazing.


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