While I did wonder why the dialogue is in italics (a bit distracting at first), Rotert does a good job of writing a heartwarming and poignant story of strong women facing many obstacles, tragedies, and challenges in a time of racial tension and homophobia during the 1950s and mid-1960s. From Civil Rights to family secrets to the nights at the Blue Angel Nightclub (once the most important jazz club downtown), where singer Naomi Hill works for Big Doug, the author layers her characters’ dilemmas with compassion, sorrow, and a fair amount of heartbreak.
Against this beautiful Midwestern backdrop where architecture, jazz, music and dance feed your soul, ten-year-old Sophia narrates a story that moves with her and her mother, Naomi, from Chicago in 1965 to an earlier time in Kansas, where poor farm girl Naomi is trying to escape her filthy and tired life. Far from a mother who likes to rub Ponds lotion into her daughter’s cheeks and calls her “kitten,” these early scenes have Naomi discovering the power of her sexuality while seeking solace from a kindly nun who has to rescue this impressionable girl from a disastrous love affair.
Chicago’s famous El winds up the block as Naomi’s manager/friend Jim arrives at their hotel room door, telling impressionable Sophia how he likes to photograph the city’s most decrepit and derelict buildings. Self-absorbed and narcissistic Naomi, however, has little time for loyal and kind Jim, even when so much of Sophia’s young life is shaped by her mother: “I look at her all the time, her beauty crashing over me.” It is Naomi’s desire to be a famous singer who rules the roost in this world.
Damaged Naomi hasn’t crossed the line and become abusive, even though she is mired in the emotional vacuum of a generally aimless existence. The singer balances on the cusp, having drunken sexual encounters with both men and women. Clearly Naomi is talented, but she’s also frustrated that she hasn’t achieved the kind of fame she thinks she deserves. Told from the perspective of Sophia, who for much of the time is tired of being “careful and mad” at her mother, Rotert’s tale finds her young heroine befuddled by the ambiguity of her days and an increasingly unsettled and crowded home life. It’s not surprising that Sophia turns to Jim and her new African-American friend, Elizabeth, one of the first students to be integrated into Sophia’s all-white school.
Packed with melodrama, steamy love affairs, drunken histrionics and surprising character reveals, Rotert’s novel takes some darkly comic turns. But even the warm-hearted banter between Sophia and Jim—who becomes a surrogate father of sorts—cannot mask the hopelessness of Naomi’s confusion and downward-drifting lifestyle. The next step for this failed singer is on the street—that is until handsome ex-lover David arrives in town, opening up a dreaded secret from the past while promising Naomi stability though marriage, a contract the singer is reluctant to accept.
From Chicago at night (“a rushing, sparkling raging city surging and singing with life”) to the Wells Street Club where men dress as women and women dress as men and where the “rules of men and women seem flexible here, something to play with,” to David’s phony entreaties that the city will eventually harden Naomi, the author peels away the delicate nuances of mother-daughter relationships, evading some of the more clichéd elements that sometimes plague novels of this sort.
Although the story has heart, the novel might have packed more punch without a tacked-on, almost heart-breaking ending. Rotert is a fresh and unique voice, and she authentically portrays the Chicago jazz scene. Unfortunately, even the unsuitability of Jim and David’s attachment to Naomi does little produce the narrative power promised by a tragic romance and a young girl who has spent much of her life trying to understand her difficult, enigmatic mother.