It just came crashing down, she says. Sometimes in life it just all comes crashing down.
There’s all sorts of crashings-down going on here, some real, some not. Some are anticipated, but never arrive, some happen before you know it. Others happen far away but carry a large impact. Naomi Hill has been a singer in Chicago (her kind of town) ten years or so and in a once-important jazz club that has seen better days for less than a year. But when her photograph appears on the cover of Look magazine in 1965, it signals her arrival. On the night of her last performance at The Blue Angel most of the important people in her life, her true family, are gathered. From this stage we look past the footlights to how each of them came to be there. Most important is her daughter, 11-year-old, Sophia.
Mother is a singer. I live in her dark margin.
For the first ten years of my life, I watch her from the wings.
The story is told from alternating perspectives, Naomi’s and Sophia’s. We see Naomi as a disaffected teen in Kansas,
It was just—nothingness. It filled us with nothingness. It made you feel so…trapped. Isn’t that funny? With so much space around you? Trapped? Can you explain that?
and follow her as she finds her way, geographically, musically and sexually. Naomi is driven by her needs like a dust mote before a haboob:
How could I tell Hilda, or anyone, how much I feared such a life, a normal life. How much I feared becoming invisible again, powerless, dependent. I wanted to do the right thing but I wanted something else more. To be known. To be loved.
Just as Naomi’s quest for fame and fear of enclosure drive her, Sophia is driven by a need to be loved by her mother, to be a necessary part of her world.
Tonight I clap so hard I think she’ll look over at me and pull me out of the wing into the spotlight and introduce me as her daughter, whom I love more than anything, she’ll say. But she doesn’t.
Last Night… is a deceptive book. It reads quickly, and weighs in at a modest 325 pages, but this is one of the richest novels I have read in a long time. One could simply follow the melody of the story and hum along, but I suggest you take your time. There is rarely a single voice trilling in a scene. Almost always it is a combo, offering syncopation, harmony, backbeats and meaningful riffs. Take your time, and let all the notes, beats, rhythms, and emotional sound of the book wash over you.
The settings are the 50s in Kansas and Chicago in 1965. It is a volatile era, in which sexual and racial norms are being challenged, a time in which the new is rising and the established is crumbling, although not without a fight. This is highlighted in Kansas (Something is definitely the matter there) with a display of the antediluvian notions extant in Naomi’s home town. In Chicago we see this through Jim, a guy who clings to the belief that someday Naomi will love him back, and in the meantime he is not only always there for her, he serves as the father Sophia never knew. He delights in photographing, while the opportunity remains, great Chicago buildings that have been slated for demolition, (He also photographs Naomi) celebrating the glorious before it is gone.
Why do you love buildings?
He combs his moustache with his fingers while he thinks. This town…it’s all hustlers and thieves from top to bottom. It always has been. But this…He points to the building. I don’t know, kid. Sometimes we do something right. Make something worth taking care of.
It is also a time of fear. Sophia is concerned about a possible nuclear holocaust, so has been compiling a list of items, the workings of which she wants to understand, (streetlamp, toaster, record player, percolator, et al) so that after the worst happens she can begin to re-invent a bit of civilization.
There is a saying that you can’t choose your family. Well, maybe not your DNA-based family. But you can create a heart-based family, and this is how Naomi and Sophia survive in the world. Naomi may have been raised in Eisenhauer America, but she is at core a modern, independent woman, and strives to find fulfillment on her own terms. We are treated (and it is so very much a treat) to seeing how each came into Naomi’s life. Every story its’ own wonderful melody. Of course, the primary relationship we see is that between Naomi and Sophia,
The seed of this story was planted many years ago. I have this very beautiful, dynamic mother. And it seemed, wherever we were she became immediately central. So, to be at her side rendered you a bit invisible, which was of course both wonderful and terrible. If the world was watching mom, I could watch the world, freely and without notice. It carved this automatic space for me, a private world, the world behind another’s wings.
We see Sophia adapting as a daughter to the spotlight that is her mother much more than the other way around. It is not that Naomi wants to be distant to Sophia, but her drives usually urge her in another direction.
One strong thematic current here is wind.
People in Kansas will tell you how beautiful it is but all I can say is that in Kansas, the wind blows everything down or away, it just beats the shit out of it.
There is even a Sister Windy who is a much more beneficent prairie breeze. You will not go more than a few pages without encountering a draft, a flutter or a gust from a wind reference.
It is also amusing to see how people are always racing ahead of other walkers, or struggling to keep up.
Among the many love stories tucked inside …the Blue Angel, a major one is about a love of beauty. Jim loves those great old buildings. And Naomi loves singing
I lay there in the moonlight breathing deep until I was sure she was asleep. Then I just let my head run back to the music, to little phrases I’d committed to memory. I felt my throat move a little as I imagined singing. And I understood that this must be love, to visit a place in your mind where music is playing, to have such a place at all.
And there is another scene of Naomi singing in an unexpected venue that will leave you gasping.
I have two issues with the book. I thought it could have used a bit more humor. It seems that kind-and-gentle moments are used to serve that purpose. There is one surprise revelation scene that also serves well to turn that frown upside down, but a couple of yucks here and there wouldn’t have hurt. Secondly, there is a hint of danger here. No, not the automatic-weapon sort. The romance sort. I am disinclined toward such things, and there are definite aromas that waft through. For good or ill there is a dishy female lead being wooed by (among others) a male yin and yang, a gun-toting bad boy gambler and a camera-toting too-good-to-be-true guy of the doormat persuasion. Such things usually make me wretch, but it was held in enough check here to stave off any unintended regurgitation.
If Rotert is not working on a musical stage production of this, she should work up a tempest and get cracking. This is major Broadway musical material. Whatever awards this book will win, and there should be many, there are Tonies, and then Oscars just waiting to be scooped up. Which requires a casting call. Much as I would love to cast Amy Adams as Naomi, and as great as she looks, Naomi is, maybe 27 or 28 and the actress would have to pass for 17 in a few scenes. Adams is 39, (even Jessica Chastain, who might be wonderful here, is 37) so, for the umpteenth time, we will return to the well and wonder how cool it would be to see Jennifer Lawrence as Naomi, (but she probably lacks the singing licks – ☹) Bradley Cooper as Jim, whose age is not specified in the book. And
Johnny Sequoyah, of the TV show Believe, as Sophia would be just about perfect. (Please don’t let her age!) And if you think I am getting all sexist about age and gender, I had John Hamm in my tiny mind for another character here, but even Don Draper couldn’t sell Hamm as a twenty-something.
Be warned, I don’t care who you are, young or old, big or small, male or female, hell, human or alien, this novel will break your heart (or hearts in that last case). 210 pounds of old guy was sobbing on the couch at the back end of this book. Ok 220. You had better have those tissues handy. You are gonna need ‘em. Ok, ok, 225, geez. And could you hide those jelly beans please? Thanks. Yeah, went major wet-face. Like a baaaaaaaby.
Last Night at the Blue Angel is one of those rare works where craft meets entertainment. It is not only a brilliantly written novel. It is a dazzlingly satisfying read as well. This angel is indeed heaven-sent.
Review posted – May 2, 2014
Publication date – July 1, 2014
A few of the many pieces of music mentioned in the text:
Sam Cooke When I fall in Love
Naomi listens to Bird and Diz when she is sad
Saint Cecilia comes in for a look here as well, yes, Saint Cecilia
Rebecca Rotert (roe-tear) has been a poet and singer for many years. Her familiarity with stage performance informs much of the novel.
Kinda light on the usual sorts of social media connections, but here is Rotert’s Twitter link
Harper posted on Soundcloud an amazing audio piece. You must check this out, not only does Rotert sing, smoky and sultry, but she talks about elements that went into the story, and reads a passage from the book that simply dazzles
A nice profile of the author from Femmes Folles Nebraska