It’s 6 P.M. and I’m at the Center for Fiction at 47th and 5th. There are a lot of murder-mystery-esque titles and alleged antique classics but not much that I recognize, so I ask the clerk to pick me out his favorite. He is sporting a large, rustic safety pin as an earring and working at a bookstore so he is already infinitely more interesting than I will ever even aspire to be, rendering his opinions trustworthy. He shrugs his shoulders as if to coolly say, “I’m busy ordering thumbtacks for my other ear but you look kind of pathetic so I’ll let you pick my brain” followed by words that actually come out of his mouth… “would you like a free one?” Lol, would I like a free book? I did not die and go to heaven. I am in a store where there is a section of free books. There is also a reading room, library, and writing workspace on the floors above. Needless to say, I gave this place my first and only Yelp review and I’m now officially on its nuts.
Enough about the bookstore and more about the book itself. I hate cats but I love pajamas so there were a lot of mixed feelings diving in. After the first couple of chapters, I noticed that there were several printing mistakes—haphazardly placed pronouns, words not separated by spaces, etc. It wasn’t so frequent that it was overly distracting-- just enough to make me wonder what kind of noobish debauchery was happening. Turns out, my copy is sort of a trial run before the novel gets published by Crown Publishers next month. The author, Marie-Helene Bertino, was an Emerging Writer Fellow at the Center for Fiction—a fellowship designed to supply early-stage writers with resources to kick start their career. Since then, her writing has steadily gained recognition and the program seems to have successfully done what it intended to do. From her website, she seems like a very down to earth person and I’m glad that my version isn’t perfectly published (I later noticed that the very first page says “uncorrected proof”).
The story-line is much less mistake-ridden. It is cleverly written in a time-stamp format—rather than using chapters, it is divided into consecutive time points, starting at 7 A.M. and progressively trucking along to 6:30 A.M. the following day. Set in Philadelphia on the eve of Christmas Eve, the novel rotates through the perspectives of three main characters:
1) Madeline Altimari: a sassy, self-sufficient, motherless, nine-year old with dreams of becoming a jazz singer.
2) Sarina Greene: a middle-aged divorcee who is largely unsure of herself.
3) Jack Lorca: club owner who runs with a rowdy musician crowd. Forced to make compromises in order to save his club from some hefty fines.
Of course, the three individuals are interconnected—Sarina is Madeline’s fifth grade teacher and both characters find themselves at Lorca’s club (the Cat’s Pajamas) at…you guessed it…2 A.M.
Each character is extraordinarily likable in their own unique way. Madeline is a foul-mouthed brat but she’s unapologetic which solicits some respect. Sarina is nervous and feels that she is always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time but she has a good heart which earns her some empathy. Lorca is not necessarily the model father but he is willing to evolve and sacrifice for the things and the people that he loves which grants him some leeway. The writing that shaped these character’s comportments and enabled me to formulate that summary made their lives seem enchanting-- but not without some hesitation on my part. Let me explain. Life seems so graceful and romantic when it is slowly drawn out and meticulously described. For instance, someone could write numerous pages detailing the beautiful intricacy of me putting a strand of hair behind my ear that was previously whipping me in the face due to a gust of wind. In reality, it happens so quickly and the splendor of it all is mostly lost. Because of a book’s magical ability to make everything slow motion, I agree with Eugenides’ point from two weeks ago that written life is superior to real life.
That being said, I feel that this novel capitalizes on that “special book power” a little too much for my personal taste. Everyone seems a tad overly suave, namely Ben, Sarina’s high school crush who spends most of the novel flirting with her. Good try dude, you're not Harvey from Suits. I guess I’m too much of a realist. Sure, I can enjoy a fantasy novel now and then but with something like this, something that seems intended to capture people’s imperfect lives and the emotions that are tied with that—I want it to feel a little less whimsical. It comes from a selfish place—I like to be able to read and have a character’s pitfalls and triumphs clarify my own feelings about life and my place in it. For the most part, to be able to get that from a book, not everything can be so smooth. It’s like the first time Jennifer Lawrence tripped and everyone said “omg, she’s so charming and funny and real” and then she fell a bazillion more times and everyone was like “this is bullshit”. Moral of the story: the charm in the novel is a little too contrived. The dialogue read like a light-hearted dance when at times I wanted to feel more grounded. To reiterate, the lengthy and luminous description of me putting the strand of hair behind my ear seems incompatible with the sight of me doing it swiftly in person. I can absolutely appreciate that this is one of the joyous benefits of reading and writing, but in this novel it became quickly apparent that what we had here was carefully crafted dialogue written by a gifted author but not necessarily reflective of real-time interactions. Because of this, it felt like I was outside of the characters, witnessing their relations objectively rather than being swept up in their minds and feelings like I typically like to be.
On the other hand, I have to remind myself that this novel was refreshingly experimental. As an aspiring writer myself, toying with the idea of producing a fictional piece, she makes writing appear deceptively easy. In fact, the book seems like it was written mostly from close observation. If you really, watchfully look at someone or something, you can find something interesting to write about. By no means do I think that this undermines Bertino’s talent—her witty pairings of words didn’t just drop down from the sky—but it is something to think about, and quite encouraging for writers who don’t know where to start. Just observe and extrapolate! That girl tucking the strand of hair behind her ear (have I used this example enough yet?)…is she doing so pensively? Maybe she’s thinking about how she’s failing math class. Is her furrowed brow and wrinkled forehead reflective of her reluctance to go to school for accounting. After all, if she’s failing math class she probably won’t make for a stellar accountant. But her father wants it so badly for her. Where the hell do these gusts of winds keep coming from and why won’t my hair stay behind my ear? Maybe I should cut it all off. Voila! We have a complex character.
Overall, this novel was still charming enough to deserve 3 out of 5 camel humps. It would have earned 4 had it not ended in a bit of a confusing bust that randomly zeroes in on a minor character. Should have stopped the book at last call instead because obviously that’s when all good things come to an end anyway. I do believe that this book was worth my time and impressive for a writer in the beginnings of her career. I look forward to her next book and hope that she can still retain her cleverness and suavity without overdoing it.
*Bertino, Marie-Helene. 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas. New York: Crown Publishers, 2014. Print.