Last Night at the Blue Angel

By Rebecca Rotert

(Morrow, $25.99, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Rebecca Rotert, an Omaha, Neb.-based writer who has just published her debut novel, is also an award-winning poet, having been honored with an Academy of American Poets prize. She has published her poetry and essays in many literary journals and magazines.

Her debut novel is set in a world of jazz musicians. Here are excerpts from an interview with her written for by bestselling author Paula McLain., in which Rotert talks about her background and certain characters in the book:

“My family sings a LOT. I was classically trained, and sang in school choirs and plays. As a young adult I sang in a few bands and learned to write music, to show up at practice with lyrics and chords on a scrap of paper and have a song by the end of the night. I chose to limit Naomi’s artistry to singing other people’s music as another way for her self-expression to be truncated. If she wrote her own music, if she had that kind of agency, her story would be different, I think.”

“….These characters were gleaned from my life. I had one particular teacher who treated me with an undeserved and seemingly endless amount of patience and respect, and stood by me through my development as a writer as well as countless personal difficulties. I also believe that nuns are among the smartest, fiercest, most radical women I’ll ever know—and Rita is surely a tribute to all the fearless characters in my life.”

What is this book about?

In this novel about music and motherhood, set in Chicago in the turbulent 1960s, we meet Naomi, a terrific jazz singer hoping to find fame after years of being on the brink, and her wise-beyond-her-years 10-year-old daughter Sophia, who mothers her self-destructive, highly attractive single mom, a woman forever scarred by her own unhappy childhood. That long-awaited chance for fame may be at hand when Naomi is chosen for a cover story in Look magazine (remember Look?), but it comes with a cost. The story is told in alternating chapters by striving mother and anxious child and is a penetrating look at a pivotal time in American history as well as a riveting personal story. Rotert says this about the book  in the Amazon interview:

“Sophia’s voice appeared first and I immediately fell in love with her sensibility, her hyper-vigilance. Her mother, Naomi, demands an enormous amount of attention, and Sophia lives in the shadow of that appetite, like a riverbank constantly being shaped and re-shaped by Naomi’s currents. You could also say I’ve been thinking about this theme all my life. I was acutely aware from an early age of my own mother’s magnetism. In a way, the brighter she shone, the more private I got to be, and in that privacy my own internal world began – the reading, writing, painting, and music.”

Why you’ll like it:

Tuesday’s blog entry told you about Emily,  the vividly written teenage protagonist of Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.” Today’s blog entry brings you another unforgettable, though much younger child: Sophia Hill, who is blessed and cursed by having a talented but troubled mother, Naomi, who the girl adores and envies and takes care of in this upside-down kind of family. Rotert is a poet as well as a novelist, and her skill with words is one of the strengths, along with the strong characters of Sophia and Naomi, of this impressive debut.

What others are saying:

Booklist says, in a starred review:  “Set in mid-1960s Chicago, this impressive debut novel tells the story of 10-year-old Sophia and her mother, Naomi. With chapters alternating between the two characters’ perspectives, Rotert paints a moving portrait of a tumultuous yet tender mother-daughter relationship. Naomi, a talented and very troubled jazz singer, performs at a past-its-prime nightclub while trying to catch her big break. Irresponsible and selfish (yet somehow likable and sympathetic), she drinks too much and hosts a variety of lovers in the hotel apartment she shares with her daughter. In flashbacks to Naomi’s childhood in rural Kansas, we learn of the painful past that both shaped and haunts her. Sophia essentially serves as her mother’s caretaker. Kindhearted and wise beyond her years, she obsesses about nuclear destruction and keeps a list of things that must be reinvented once it happens. Sadly, a normal childhood is forever beyond her grasp. With lush prose and well-drawn characters, this heartbreaking novel of love, loss, and the redemptive power of music also offers a satisfying glimpse of Chicago at a pivotal point in history.”

Publishers Weekly says: “. . . Rotert’s debut depicts Naomi Hill’s struggles to succeed as a jazz singer, largely from the perspective of her young daughter, 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.” A reckless single mother, Naomi believes in living in the moment and depends on her friends to help care for Sophia. The girl grows up in an erratic lifestyle revolving around Naomi’s club act at the titular Blue Angel. The stress Sophia already feels as a result of their unpredictable routine is heightened by school civil defense drills, which leave her feeling anxious about the threat of nuclear warfare. However, she has an ability beyond her age to understand her mother’s flaws while still being able to cherish their relationship. In flashbacks told from Naomi’s point of view, the woman reflects on what drove her to flee her Kansas hometown in the 1950s and what drives her to pursue the spotlight. Rotert has created a complicated and engaging heroine in Sophia, a memorable character portrait which is her book’s most striking aspect.

In another starred review, Kirkus says:  “A debut novel about a nightclub singer preoccupied with her own desires and a young daughter who yearns for her love. Ten-year-old Sophia Hill knows her mother’s life is about to change as she watches her final performance at the Blue Angel. Naomi’s picture now graces the cover of Look magazine, and she’s famous. Naomi has achieved her goal, but Sophia’s dream is different: She just wants her mother’s love. It’s 1965, and Sophia lives in a Chicago motel with Naomi, meticulously documenting the comings and goings of the men and women who spend time in her mother’s bedroom, including a couple of guests from the past. She doesn’t fully grasp the meaning behind all of Naomi’s visitors, but Sophia is wise beyond her years in many ways. Surrounded by adults who’ve always protected and indulged her mother, she’s never experienced a normal family life. Instead, her days and nights revolve around Naomi’s needs, and she worries that her mother will leave her behind the same way she imagines Naomi left her own parents. However, unbeknownst to Sophia, Naomi’s life has been one of turmoil and deprivation. One of seven children born in poverty in Kansas, she was a rambunctious student until a teacher recognized her talent and encouraged her to sing. After graduating from high school, she was forced to leave town after becoming sexually involved with the daughter of a prominent community leader, sparking a complicated future with regard to relationships. Telling the story from Sophia’s and Naomi’s distinct perspectives, Rotert creates an expressive and haunting narrative highlighting Sophia’s innocent vulnerability and her mother’s single-minded obsession. Though the characters are very different, the author’s interpretation of both emerges spot-on. And, while Naomi’s journey is interesting, Sophia’s story hooks the reader from the beginning and dominates, particularly as the final chapters unfold. A tale that’s poignant, poetic and heart-wrenching throughout.”

Says Library Journal:  “Rotert’s astonishing debut novel opens with ten-year-old Sophia sitting behind the dusty velvet curtains at Chicago’s Blue Angel Jazz Club. She peeks out at the audience, yearning to be noticed. But it’s the singer, her mother, Naomi, who’s center stage, the place that she was born to be. Naomi is single-mindedly focused on achieving fame, and therein lies the conflict for Sophie and everyone else caught up in Naomi’s thrall. Her daughter, her lovers, and her best friend, Jim, though complex, nuanced characters, are just bit players in her entourage. Naomi may seem abusive, living as she does in a run-down hotel, keeping Sophie out half the night at the Blue Angel, entertaining various men and women until morning, and using the deeply smitten photographer Jim as dad, cook, and housekeeper. We begin to understand better when Rotert shows us Naomi’s 1950s Kansas childhood, during which her siblings worked the farm and a dissident teacher, Sister Idalia, recognized Naomi’s potential, encouraging her musical talent. This, too, is where Naomi fell in love with Laura, sparking a scandal that would reverberate over the next 20 years. VERDICT Rotert’s musical background informs Naomi’s passion for performance, but it is her heartbreaking portrait of Sophie, so wise yet so vulnerable, that readers will remember long after the final page.”

When is it available?

You can find this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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