Title: Last Night at the Blue Angel
Author: Rebecca Rotert
No. of Pages: 336
Genre: Literary Fiction
Origins: William Morrow
Release Date: 1 July 2014
Bottom Line: Unique, timeless, and wonderful
“It is the early 1960s, and Chicago is a city of uneasy tensions—segregation, sexual experimentation, free love, the Cold War—but it is also home to one of the country’s most vibrant jazz scenes. Naomi Hill, a singer at the Blue Angel club, has been poised on the brink of stardom for nearly ten years. Finally, her big break arrives—the cover of Look magazine. But success has come at enormous personal cost. Beautiful and magnetic, Naomi is a fiercely ambitious yet extremely self-destructive woman whose charms are irresistible and dangerous for those around her. No one knows this better than Sophia, her clever ten-year-old daughter.
For Sophia, Naomi is the center of her universe. As the only child of a single, unconventional mother, growing up in an adult world, Sophia has seen things beyond her years and her understanding. Unsettled by her uncertain home life, she harbors the terrible fear that the world could end at any moment, and compulsively keeps a running list of practical objects she will need to reinvent once nuclear catastrophe strikes. Her one constant is Jim, the photographer who is her best friend, surrogate father, and protector. But Jim is deeply in love with Naomi—a situation that adds to Sophia’s anxiety.
Told from the alternating perspectives of Sophia and Naomi, their powerful and wrenching story unfolds in layers, revealing Sophia’s struggle for her mother’s love with Naomi’s desperate journey to stardom and the colorful cadre of close friends who shaped her along the way.”
Thoughts: There is something quite timeless about Last Night at the Blue Angel that makes it easy for readers to completely lose track of the era in which it is set. While Naomi’s lifestyle choices and Sophia’s situation are ultra-modern even for the sixties, it is as if Naomi’s nights at the Blue Angel are nightly travels back in time to the heady days of the Jazz Era. The references to the Cold War, racial politics, television, music, and fashion are all jarring in their modernity. While this sense of timelessness can cause issues with the flow of the narrative, they also serve to add to the overall charm of the story.
Naomi and Sophia are two very distinct personalities, something that their alternative perspectives highlight. Ms. Rotert draws on a reader’s sympathies with Sophia, the little girl who loves her mother but fiercely desires a father figure and life of relative normalcy. Forced to be the grown-up in their little family, she is wise beyond her years and too mature for her own good, but her voice maintains an innocence that befits her age. While readers may be leery of a child narrator, her voice is refreshingly honest without being childish, and the pragmatism she displays belies her age. Sophia is truly a good girl, and it breaks a reader’s heart that she must endure such drama at the hands of her mother.
Conversely, Naomi is the type of character it is easy for readers to condemn, but she is also a pitiable figure. Naomi’s narration tends to draw on her memories, showing readers how she landed in a Chicago jazz bar from her origins in rural Kansas, the choices she made along the way, and how those choices shaped her personality and her world. Her drive for success is palpable, although it is obvious from her words and actions that she never intended to morph into the self-involved woman Sophia knows as her mother. Much of her harshness is a learned behavior deriving specifically from her devastating experiences at the hands of friends and family. Yet, Ms. Rotert is careful to show that not all of Naomi’s issues are the result of others. There is a coldness to her that is an innate part of her personality, as seen best in her attitude towards her daughter. Perhaps it is because Ms. Rotert introduces readers to the charming Sophia first, but Naomi never quite generates the same amount of admiration and respect with readers that Sophia does.
Last Night at the Blue Angel is an ambitious and admirable novel. The story includes bi-racial relationships at a time when the intermingling of races in any fashion was still illegal. There is a strong gay/lesbian/bisexual element within the story. Naomi is a single mother when women were shunned for having a child out of wedlock. These are all scenarios that were shocking in the 1960s and still make people uncomfortable today. The story makes a deliberate statement on these controversial topics, showing how society should be and that all forms of friendship and love are acceptable even if they do not follow the traditional template. Naomi and Sophia are remarkable in their capacity to embrace the untraditional and find happiness and love in alternative ways. This noteworthy acceptability of all lifestyle choices as combined with the eerie timeless quality of the backdrop creates a stunning and unique story about love and family for the ages.