It took less than a day to listen to this well-written novel about a precocious, but badly behaved, fifth grader, Madeleine Altamori, who lives in Philadelphia on 9th Street with her father. She is trying to make the best of her shattered life. Her mother, with whom she had a strong bond, died of cancer about a year or so ago, and from that moment on, her father took to his bed and remained there. He ceased to run his business and depends on this almost 10 year old child for his well-being. She dotes on him and takes care of herself as best she can, but she is losing the battle as she watches her apartment and her life slowly decay around her. She was born with a voice that transcends the sound she emits, mesmerizes those who hear it and often causes unexpected reactions and behavior, suggesting the supernatural. She sang before she spoke a word.
Madeleine is disappointed and frustrated with the direction her life is taking and she exhibits her anger with abhorrent behavior. She uses foul language and shows little respect for her elders. She has no real friends, except for one who taught her every dirty word in her repertoire before she moved away. She depends mostly on the adults who seemed to have respected and loved her mother and who have taken over her care, especially Mrs. Santiago who feeds her at her Café and tries to help in her upbringing, guiding her day by day.
In school, Madeleine is bullied and she bullies others. Which came first, the chicken or the egg, is hard to discern from the book, but it is obvious that she has been picked on and the poverty that is engulfing her more and more as her father remains in bed, neglecting his business, does not enhance or enrich her life. She is terrified of the roaches that are increasingly active in her apartment, her clothes are becoming ragged and she suffers even further when she is humiliated at school when she is found to have head lice.
A shining light in her life is her teacher, Sarina Greene. She is kind to her and Madeleine is looking forward to the caramel apples she is making for the class, to celebrate Xmas, because Madeleine has never had one. Underlying the story of Madeleine is the story of Sarina’s own unhappy childhood and unhappy romantic life.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Principal Randles, an unlikely source of unhappiness for Madeleine. She apparently has her reasons for disliking Madeleine that have little to do with Madeleine herself, one of them being her own troubled childhood memories.
When we meet Madeleine, she is practicing how to shimmy on the morning of Christmas eve, eve. When the story ends, the following day we find her in Café Santiago, confessing her sins to Mrs. Santiago who tells her if she cannot be honest, she doesn’t think their relationship will work out. She asks her to sing and then, Mrs. Santiago, who has always wanted to fly away and travel, gets her opportunity in a highly unusual way that very same morning. Listening to Madeleine sing gave people what they wanted, sometimes.
In the hours in between Madeleine’s shimmying and confessing, there is quite an assortment of events. She gets and loses an opportunity to sing in assembly at school, gets suspended for speaking disrespectfully to the principal, then gets expelled from school for punching a fellow student in the nose, loses Mrs. Santiago’s adorable dog Pedro who is apparently suffering from a broken heart, as do so many of the characters, steals a fruit and is rewarded with a Hoagie, and sneaks into a jazz club. The dog, Pedro, seems to be the catalyst that introduces some of the characters to move the story along, one of whom is Mr. Lorca, the owner of the jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas, located in Fishtown, but there are others.
Madeleine’s voice is her one source of happiness, but she also has the recipe cards her mother left her which included advice about how to handle singing and life’s challenges. Throughout the book, there is a theme about intuitive moments in life, with a recurring statement concerning airplanes, which is “the way you know with your eyes closed that a plane is banking”. Does it foreshadow the idea that our lives can take flight and we can accomplish our goals if we try hard enough, that Madeleine’s life will get better along with many of the other characters, if they simply feel it or believe it? At the end of the book, the drummer Gus’s model plane finally soars into the air and signifies hope, to me, that all will be well, exactly as Sarina’s parents used to tell her, if only she could relax, stop worrying and believe.
Our emotions rise and fall as the book’s themes develop. We soar when Madeleine achieves success, deflate when she behaves rudely, sadden when she experiences the pain of loss and the bullying of others. From a fifth grader’s perspective, this book unfolds rapidly, unraveling the emotions of both adults and children, complete with the petty jealousies that plague us all. Bullying and the sense of entitlement held by those who are more fortunate, and even those who are less fortunate, is exposed in the behavior of both adults and children as they go about their daily lives as snobs or caregivers.
The dialogue and the thoughts of the characters are “tongue in cheek” and will often make the reader smile or lift their brows in wonder. In this short little novel, every sentence is pithy; and there is not one wasted word. The author has a unique way of expressing things as in describing the refilling of ketchup bottles as “the marriage of two bottles”. Every contrast is perfect, i.e., while Madeleine wears ripped stockings, Claire, another fifth grader has perfect braids and gets to sing at assembly in their school, St. Anthony of the Immaculate Heart, while Madeleine is forbidden because of an “unpleasant” circumstance. These two fifth graders live in opposite worlds.
The story really centers around the happenings in a jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas” and the relationships between all of the characters seems to be revealed there. Dreams are realized there and destroyed there. The club has been cited for breaking regulations that have been overlooked for years by another police officer who recently retired. The new officer holds the owner accountable for the infractions. Lorca has disregarded the rules, allowed too many patrons, ignored fire laws and served the under-aged. He too, is a single parent of sorts, who has failed, and like Mark Altamori, Madeleine’s father, he has an extremely neglected, but talented child, a son out of wedlock, named Alexander, an expert guitar player.
There is a mixture of characters, kind and cruel, some with malicious intent like Principal Randles and others just doing their duty like Officer Len Thomas. There are many characters and each one serves to express a different kind of person, a different motive for behavior, a different walk of life. The nasty children, the rude adults, all interact and reinforce their own personalities, faults, defects and strengths, when contrasted.
2 A. M. At The Cat’s Pajamas is part love story, part coming of age story and part fairy tale. The real important values in life, like relationships, are stressed while the reliance on the material world is shown to be shallow. The possibility of flying and accomplishing your dreams is the thought that I found to be a happily surprising theme, at the end.