When I was a child, I developed a set of deliciously painful fantasies to reach for whenever my life felt stifling: running away, contracting a wasting illness, being orphaned (or kidnapped) and raised by disciplinarian ninjas. One of the most potent dreams involved becoming a latchkey kid, free after school hours to move around the city on my own dubious recognizance. I grew up in the suburbs, so my notions of “the city” were vague, but I supposed that I would live by my wits, sneaking through back-alley shortcuts and shoplifting candy bars when the need was great.
In Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari is a near-perfect stand-in for the scamp of my childhood dreams. She makes her own breakfast and escorts herself home at the end of the day; she knows swears. But her world is more fraught and dangerous than the one I had in mind. For one thing, her mother is dead, and, unlike the sympathetic thugs from my fantasy (who always showed up in the nick of time to grab my hand and tell me to run), the adults who remain in her life don’t follow her around to keep her safe. They each stay in their place, and she skips between them like a stone.
Some of Bertino’s characters are more stuck than others. For instance: Lorca, the owner of the titular club, who spends most of the book trying to keep his business running in the face of blatant city code violations. Or Mrs. Santiago, the deli owner who feeds Madeleine and asks about her day: she provides a necessary stability for the girl, but seems so fixed in her routine that she won’t even chase her dog (the marvelous Pedro) during his frequent bids for freedom.
But what’s enchanting is the way that most everyone – no matter how fixed at the story’s outset – is moving towards the same sublime adolescent freedom as Madeleine. It’s our privilege as readers to not just witness this mass unfettering, but to share in it: we feel the new lightness in each character’s step. Sarina Greene – Madeleine’s schoolteacher – is the clearest example: she starts off woebegone, still wearing her high-school-era discontents and sitting silently in the corner at a Christmas party. Soon, though, she’s chasing her new paramour through ice-cold fountains, making snap decisions, having fun. And so are we.
As we follow the antic momentum towards the Cat’s Pajamas (and, we assume, the hour of 2 A.M.), the book shimmers with pratfalls and wit, feeling at once real-to-life and larger-than. Not everyone is perfectly happy: Madeleine – an aspiring jazz singer – discovers the club and decides to make her way there, but despite her age and her Puckish quest, she’s not innocent. Her father, locked away in his grief, sleeps in their apartment like an ogre underneath a bridge; caustic and dangerous when startled awake. (He’s also the one exception, so far as we see, to the rule of stuck characters breaking loose.)
Still, it’s his alienation that gives Madeleine the leeway she needs to step out into the evening and play her part. And this seems to be another loose rule of the book: no redemption without suffering. Fair enough.
One question: is it possible for a group of characters to be too charismatic? If so, that was my only real objection to Bertino’s novel. The cast is large, and many more than our three major players (Madeleine, Sarina, and Lorca) take over as point-of-view characters for a page or two. Quite rightly, Bertino lets most of these personalities fall to the wayside so her plot can progress, but a few stuck in my mind long past their expiration dates: Clare Kelly – Madeleine’s nemesis – for example, is such a delicious brat that I couldn’t help but want more time with her. I also snagged on the suggestion of a parallel between Madeleine’s competition with Clare and her mother’s long-ago rivalry with a woman we know as Principal Randles (who expels Madeleine from elementary school, seemingly to get back at her mother for being too pretty), but the connection goes largely unexplored.
It’s fair to say, though, that all this really points out is that Bertino draws rich and real human beings with enviably few strokes of the pen. Instead of feeling overcrowded, the book feels lively, with the jostling energy of…well, a club. It’s packed. You might elbow someone to get to your table. But in the end you don’t really mind, because those electric connections are part of the fun.