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Tue August 5, 2014
It's 2 A.M.: Do You Know Where Your Fifth-Grader Is?
By 7 a.m., the sun still hasn't come to Philadelphia. But the snowflakes have — a dusting that seems, in the opening lines of Marie-Helene Bertino's debut, to touch every crevice of the city. It's the kind of magic you might expect of a Disney film. For a tender moment, it appears we're in for a love letter to Philly, the kind of novel that elevates a place to the status of hero. And kindly, Philly even offers a reply of its own.
"Good morning, the city says. [F- - -] you."
I guess it should be no surprise — after all, this is the same city that threw snowballs at Santa Claus — but don't be misled. There's heart here too, beneath the gruff exterior. And most of it rests with Madeleine, a chain-smoking 9-year-old with the mouth of a sailor and the voice of a torch singer. Her mother died recently, her father can't get out of bed and her apartment's so infested with cockroaches, she goes from room to room announcing herself just to get them to scatter. But she also dreams of singing jazz standards onstage, and she practices relentlessly to be ready when it happens.
In a span of 24 hours, Bertino traces the shape of those dreams, entangling them with those of two other people: Sarina, the young divorcee who is Madeleine's fifth-grade teacher, and Lorca, the owner of the jazz club that lends its name to the book's title. Between these three principals, Bertino braids the thoughts of lesser characters and passersby — even the dog gets a word in edgewise. His name is Pedro, by the way.
In fact, it's Pedro who best explains the restless desire that keeps this motley group moving: "He is lonely and he knows he is lonely," Bertino writes. "He is in love but is not sure with whom."
Now, you already know where this book is headed — if you haven't figured that out yet, take another gander at the title — and that sense of predestination isn't the only thing about this book that reminded me of a finely honed sitcom. The book isn't a pure comedy, exactly, but Bertino's plot points still land like punch lines, delivered with a brief setup before being shouldered aside to make way for the next one. Most characters are dressed with an eccentricity or two, thrust onto stage to speak a few quips and herded off to wait until they're called again. Bertino's Philadelphia brims with such quirk and coincidence, it begs for a studio audience — both for better and for worse.
Let's get worse out of the way first. This sprightly tone, while entertaining, doesn't serve the story quite as well when Bertino ventures into rougher waters. In darker moments, scenes of domestic abuse or hints at drug addiction, the book seems not to have wiped its smirk off in time. With one notable exception — a devastating exchange between Madeleine and her dad — pain comes packaged a bit too neatly to be convincing, like a backlot set designed for a tragedy.
Still, these missteps aren't enough to slow the novel down. Bertino has a knack for turning phrases, and she uses it to make otherwise mundane observations into jabs in the gut — whether they concern two skinny teens whose "collarbones vault in upsetting directions," or a "dumb scratch of moon" that lingers over Sarina's long walk home. And while the story may feel as if it's told in punch lines, more often than not, those punch lines hit their mark. The book is consistently funny, no matter which character takes a turn at center stage.
Most important, 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas also shares this in common with the best of TV sitcoms: Despite the contrivances, its characters are worth rooting for. Lorca, Sarina, especially Madeleine — even Bertino's version of Philadelphia — are all imbued with such wit, flaw and charm, they deserve whatever love they're offered. Just don't count on the city to return your affections.