cover image 2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas

2 a.m. at the Cat’s Pajamas

Marie-Helene Bertino. Crown, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8041-4023-2

Madeleine Altimari is in the fifth grade and wants to be a jazz singer. Despite her mother’s recent death and her father’s descent into an opaque and private mourning, she is trying to keep her fingers snapping and her brassy voice at the ready. Sarina Greene is Madeleine’s teacher and, after a recent divorce and a return to her hometown of Philadelphia, she is trying very hard to keep the faith that something worthwhile will come of it all. These two make for companionable allies, and it’s easy to share in the affection they feel for one another. Tougher to accept—or at least keep track of—is the mosaic of many, many other characters to whom Sarina and Madeleine find themselves linked. Although it’s to Bertino’s (Safe as Houses) credit that she has invented, sketched, connected, and geographically located such an elaborate cast, and in the process established what does genuinely feel like an old neighborhood at Christmastime, remembering who’s who is often a challenge. While the jazzy intentions are noble, the toe-tapping, bebopping tone Bertino aims for feels forced—a melody we can see Madeleine shimmying along to, but not ever quite hear for ourselves. (Aug.)