Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert

I chose Last Night at the Blue Angel as a discussion book for the library's Tuesday/Thursday book club. It was a little “steamier” (their word) than I realized it would be. One of the main characters is not only a bisexual, but she participates in a threesome at one point. While not graphically descriptive, it’s descriptive enough to cause comments from the club members.

But it’s the 1960s, and Naomi is rebelling against the conventional expectations of her. The book is narrated in turns by Naomi and her 10-year-old daughter Sophia. In 1965, Naomi is a jazz singer who has been performing at the Blue Angel for some time. The book opens with her last night before moving on from that venue.

Naomi’s narration takes us back to 1951 and the circumstances that caused her to leave Kansas and her family as a teenager. We learn how and when she met some of the unconventional people who are still present in her life in 1965. We learn about her relationship with Sophia’s biological father, and why she decided to keep the baby although unmarried.

Sophia’s narration describes life with her self-absorbed mother and the “family” Naomi has surrounded herself and her child with on her life’s journey. Sophia is as much the parent as the child. The truest parent Sophia has is Jim, who has been in love with Naomi for years but is willing to take whatever role he can play for her in return. Sophia is obsessed with the obliteration of the world through a nuclear war. She keeps a list of all the things she’ll need to reinvent after the bomb. She also keeps a list of the people her mother has had sexual relationships with – people who never stay.

Sophia notes, “Mother’s feelings are the curb I walk, trying to keep my balance, and I get tired of it, being careful, and mad at her at the same time.” (p. 37)

I liked that the book addresses the sexism and racism of the time but also the destruction of many of the fine examples of architecture in Chicago. Jim is a photographer and is modeled loosely after Richard Nickel, who photographed architecture in Chicago in the 1960s and 70s and fought for the preservation of many buildings. Jim is a sober and steady counterpoint to Naomi.

I knew the book would have a bittersweet ending, since the story is bittersweet throughout, although I did not quite guess how it would end. (You might, however, if you are familiar with the life of Richard Nickel.)

Last Night at the Blue Angel has an engaging story and was an easy read. Many of the minor characters are quite interesting. The 1960s Chicago setting is delightful, and music is key to the feel of the story and the plot. If you don’t mind some sexual content and enjoy strong narrative voices, music, and a Chicago setting, I recommend it.

The Galesburg Public Library has Last Night at the Blue Angel in the adult fiction section and as an audiobook on CD.

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