Last Night at the Blue Angel
by Rebecca Rotert
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (April 14, 2015)
Set against the turbulence of 1960s Chicago?a city in transformation?and its legendary jazz scene, Last Night at the Blue Angel is a lush and immensely heartfelt mother-daughter tale about a talented but troubled singer?s relationship with her precocious ten-year-old daughter.
It is the early 1960s, and Chicago is teeming with the tensions of the day?segregation, sexual experimentation, the Cold War and Vietnam?but it is also home to some of the country?s most influential jazz. Naomi Hill, a singer at the Blue Angel club, has been poised on the brink of stardom for nearly ten years. But when her big break, the cover of Look magazine, finally arrives, it carries with it an enormous personal cost. Sensual and magnetic, Naomi is a fiercely ambitious yet self-destructive woman whose charms tend to hurt those around her, and no one knows this better than her daughter, Sophia.
As the only child of a single mother growing up in an adult world, Sophia is wise beyond her years, a casualty of her mother?s desperate struggle for fame and adoration. Unsettled by her home life, she harbors a terrible fear that her world could disappear at any moment, and compulsively maintains a list of everyday objects she might need to reinvent should nuclear catastrophe strike. Her only constant is the colorful and unconventional family that surrounds her and her mother, particularly the photographer, Jim, who is Sophia?s best friend, surrogate father, and protector?but Jim is also deeply in love with Naomi.
Weaving between the perspectives of Sophia and Naomi, Last Night at the Blue Angel is a poignant and unforgettable story about what happens when our passion for the life we want is at sharp odds with the life we have. Part stylish period piece, part heartbreaking family drama, it?s a novel rife with revelations, a vivid and propulsive page-turner?and the major debut of an extraordinary new writer.
“Mother is a singer. I live in her dark margin.”
“Mother has many kinds of smiles. This one is the I’m sad and all alone but I don’t want you to worry smile.”
“When she notices me, all the times she doesn’t notice me get erased. Like I imagined them.”
“Darling, she said gently, we don’t get to live two lives at once. We must choose between who we were and who we would like to be. I know this better than anyone.”
Last Night at the Blue Angel is one of those beautifully crafted books that I simultaneously love/hate to read and tend to avoid – yet also seek out. It is brooding and smoky, and pulled and tore at me as I read. The story turned me inside out, and I sense these peculiar and quirky characters will not be leaving my head space for weeks to come. The novel is meticulously crafted with a moody, melancholy, and ethereal air, and is devastatingly emotional and haunting. The story is told from two different narrators and from two different time periods that are 10 years apart. The story starts at the end and works backwards, I didn’t realize that at first, but found that formula to be intriguing, and one that served the story well. Sophia is the neglected and overlooked bastard child of a selfish, immature, and histrionic, and contrarian mother, who is a nightclub singer at The Blue Angel during the 60s. Her mother had always been the odd misfit who had also been a troubled and angry child. As an adult, she continued to seek/dwell in fantasy, wanting what she can’t/shouldn’t have, and never pleased with it once she had it. I enjoyed last quarter section of the book the best, as I reveled in learning the beginnings of each of the singer’s relationships. It was amusing to delve into how she had met and managed to collect her odd little entourage, and seeing how they had folded into a cohesive if not highly eccentric extended family. I adored and pitied Jim all throughout, and his story was the most deeply moving and shattering to me. I actually had to stop reading at several points to sob, which is something I seldom do, but Ms. Rotert snuck up on me, she has mad skills.
Rebecca Rotert received an M.A. in literature from Hollins College, where she was the recipient of the Academy of American Poets prize. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times and other publications. She’s also an experienced singer and songwriter, who has performed with several bands, and a teacher with the Nebraska Writers Collective. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska. This is her first novel.