Thursday, December 3, 2015

Review: 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

This novel sounded right up my alley: it's about a precocious and foul-mouthed 9-year old jazz singing girl and the lonely eccentrics that populate her world.  Bizarrely, I was under the impression that this novel took place in the 1960s or earlier.  The retro cover, the title, and the references to jazz strongly suggested a historical novel to me, and nothing in the description of the novel suggested otherwise.  I was surprised to find that the novel takes place in present-take Philadelphia.  I'm going to guess that this story was meant to hearken back to these earlier moments on purpose.  I found it a little jarring and indeed misleading.  The paperback cover (the second from the top) clarifies matters a tiny bit, if only because it does not so clearly scream retro as the hardback cover, pictured above.  This, perhaps, put me in a less-than-positive mindset when reading this book.  It is very well-written, and the prose is, as befits the subject, "jazzy," in that it is full of run-ons and swerves and swoops and is somewhat musical.  Bertino does a fairly good job with this; it could easily get out of hand of feel like the author is way too enamored of her own prose, but it doesn't come across that way here.  One thing I want to point out is that a lot of reviewers have called this book "charming."  Now, this is not Bertino's fault, and neither is the marketing or the book design.  That word, along with the basic description I gave at the top and the cover and title, is misleading.  It suggests that this is a sweet, light-hearted book with quirky and lovable characters.  The cover, too, with its minty cover and cutesy font in the hardback version, and the cartoon figures and starry font (and Maggie Shipstead quote using the word "charming!") in the paperback version, further this characterization.  This is not the case.  This book is dark, and the main character is, purposefully, unpleasant and hard-edged, since she is experiencing intense grief and hardship.  This is not a light-hearted book, but rather a sad and beautifully written portrait of innocence and grief, coping and loneliness.  It has funny moments, but it is not light.  It's unfortunate that I came to reading this book with so many misconceptions, because I was not expecting the book to be the way it was, and thus, it was not possible for me to enjoy it.  If I had come to it at a different time, or with a clearer understanding of what it was about, I would probably have really loved this book.  Instead, I found it to be an unpleasant and disturbing read.  
(I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.)

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