Before I say anything, I want you to know that I loved Marie Helene-Bertino’s short story collection, Safe as Houses. Evidence here.
Some authors should stick to short stories. I can’t say yet that this is the case with Helene-Bertino because she’s only now written one novel. However, it really was a novel of a bunch of stories titled 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas. This novel is about lost and lonely people in Philadelphia. It’s specifically about three characters; Madeline, Sarina, and Lorca. Madeleine is a young elementary school girl who’s mother has passed and father is a bodily ghost that spends everyone else’s waking hours in his bed next to his record player and open bottle. Sarina is Madeleine’s teacher who is divorced and not really looking for much, but an end of evening ice cream and a little compassion. Lorca owns the legendary “Cat’s Pajamas” jazz club where he and a posse live until a new cop takes over their street and issues a citation that could put them out of business. Although the main plot points are about these three characters, there are full “chapters” dedicated to the thoughts of people who bump them on the street, see them in a coffee shop, or have memories deeply embedded with these characters.
“Gathers him in his name – Jack Francis Lorca. We carry our ancestors in our names and sometimes we carry our ancestors through the sliding doors of emergency rooms and either way they are heavy, man, either way we can’t escape.”
It’s both uplifting and upsetting. The minor character chapters seek to show that these three main characters shouldn’t be so lonely, just drifting. They have people that care, or have cared for a very long time. These characters are all exhausted, and people in their lives are dropping, not quite like flies, more like pins, silently and with too much meaning. The “chapters” were also interesting because they went by time. I was expecting it to end at 2 A.M., it didn’t, but it was nice to go through one full day with these characters, watching them move, almost literally, through time.
“BUT THEN, her class will be making caramel apples. Madeleine has never had a caramel apple and she wants to taste one more than she wants God’s love.”
I was really interested in Madeleine’s story because she was the youngest bitter book character that I’ve ever read. She had no friends, girls were scared of her baditude, and all she wanted to do was sing a solo in the church service. The reader gets the full brunt of a woman’s death through this small girl. It’s actually quite a feat because I felt like her grief was real grief. She was angry, had obsessions, and only wanted few sweet things, but was never given them without a battle. Her principle has no empathy and her teacher worries without speaking.
“Madeleine 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 star ward, though she does. Madeleine has no friends because she is a jerk.”
Sarina, her teacher, is just a simple woman who has returned home after the death of her mother. The reader finds out the story of her missing father later in the book, and a poor prom experience. This really is most of her story until a man enters the novel. Lorca owns the jazz club and takes care of the men within the main band of the club, the Cubanistas. His girlfriend is practically done with him, and his son is sullen, wild, but a gifted guitar player.
“They are sixteen and skinny. Their collarbones vault in upsetting directions.”
This is it, really. The book had Helene-Bertino’s signature language. Funky and beautiful, like a good John Coltrane song. If you read for inventive and lovely language, then read everything she’s written. As far as a story goes, this whole thing just saddened me. I finished left with the question, “So what?” I wasn’t concerned that the people were out of hope, I was just more concerned at the reason that I read the book. I know these people in my everyday life. They may not be from Philadelphia, but they are finding themselves, living through it, silent when the world needs them to talk, and open when the world asks them to be closed. If this story was meant to introduce me to grief, or introduce me to sadness, or acknowledge that everyone is fighting a hard battle, then it did its job, but I’m not sure that was enough. The big finale, was just odd, honestly. When I got to the end, I knew the big finish was coming, but it was some weird want-to-be magical realism. People almost became who they always wanted to be, or what they hated inside themselves came out. It was all really strange. It might be worth the read just for that clutter.
“Who cares which way is faster? You can’t say you know a city unless you know three ways to everywhere. Madeleine swings her legs over the edge of the roof. I sang on a stage. She is close enough to high-five Saint Anthony but doesn’t because no matter what kind of thrilling night you’ve had, you do not bother saints this way.”
For a reader who waited for her next book, I was disappointed. I’m not saying this is a bad book, but it didn’t have the closure I needed and it didn’t say anything new. Like another reader on Goodreads, I think this novel could get a cult-following. I don’t think it’s introducing a new style to literature, or that it’s fresh or modern, but it’s a catchy song, and it’s beauty in the sadness. I think a good multi-character book makes you want to read each character, not look towards a mouthy girl who walks a dog, eats breakfast at the local cafe, and tries not to take on second mothers in all the outstretched hands.
“Pedro is an open-air pooch, not prone to evenings at home. His joints are nimble and his snout superb. He spent the previous night following the scent of a bitch, pink notes and hydrangea and dung.”
I am a writer, educator and genuine creative living on the coast of NC. Our house is built on sunshine with my husband BJ, dog named Tucker, and our two very sassy cats: Fromage and Jasper.