From the first page of 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas, I was infatuated by Marie-Helene Bertino’s magical prose and the even more magical Madeleine Altimari. The only problem with trying to review this book is that every paragraph deserves to be highlighted, lifted up for examination and savored. When I finished the last chapter, which began with a very similar sentence to the first, I returned to chapter one and began again. While I have read many excellent books more than once, I can count on one hand those I re-read immediately after reading the first time.

The story begins with a lyrical introduction to Philadelphia at “dark, dark seven A.M. on Christmas Eve Eve.” as the snow gently falls on the city. The prose is poetic, magical with wonderful metaphors such as “musicians, late for the final rehearsal arpeggiate through the dark.”  Objects are anthropomorphic. Cigarettes doze and snow flurries dance and change their minds, refusing to land. It is also so very magical. Then you turn to page two.

“Good morning,” the city says. “Fuck you.”

Yes! Of course, you realize that the lovely, magical snowfall blessing early morning Philadelphia is not an introduction to a new Miracle on a Philadelphia Street when you meet the nine-year-old Madeleine shimmying and smoking that dozing Menthol 100, but that short, sharp surprise woke me up to the realization that while our heroine is a nine-year old, this book is for adults.

Madeleine recently lost her mother, her father is lost in grief and while her teacher, Sarina Greene is kind and tender-hearted, she is no protection from the hard discipline of Principal Randles. Besides, as the author tells us, “Madeleine is a jerk… Even jerks lose their mothers.”

The story is populated with wonderful neighbors who care for Madeleine in spite of herself. Mrs. Santiago feeds her and makes sure she goes to school, Vince Sherry styles and cuts her hair and the intrepid Pedro, the dog, slobbers her with love. They all have their own stories as does Jack Francis Lorca, the owner of The Cat’s Pajamas, a famed jazz club of ages past struggling in this era where jazz is found under Other at Billboard and The Grammys.

Madeleine dreams of being a jazz singer like her mother. She has a voice, a magical voice. One that she is forbidden to use in school because it is so very, very magical. In a short twenty-four hours, a lot can happen. The Cat’s Pajamas is threatened with closure by a police officer. Madeleine is suspended from school. Pedro wanders off on an adventure. Sarina has a date. Somehow they all come together in wonderful confluence.


The language is magical, alive and active, exciting and new. The story is propelled forward, jumping from character to character, moving quickly faster and faster to the chaotic and exciting climax at 2 A.M.

5pawsIt is so appropriate that this book occurs on Christmas Eve Eve, because it is a gift.

I borrowed this book from Multnomah County Library.