‘Last Night at the Blue Angel’ by Rebecca Rotert

Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert (2014) – 325 pages

Last

‘Last Night at the Blue Angel’ is a show business novel, albeit small-time show business. Naomi Hill is a singer in a Chicago jazz nightclub, the Blue Angel, trying to make it to the big time. She is also the single mother of ten year old Sophie. Sophie is devoted to her mother,

Mother is a singer. I live in her dark margin.”

Sophie goes to her mother’s shows but must stay at a spot marked ‘X’ backstage which is designated for her. She does her school homework while her mother performs.

The year is 1965. Naomi and Sophie live in an old hotel near the Blue Angel. The novel alternates between Sophie describing her current life with her mother and Naomi telling how she arrived at this Chicago nightclub in the first place. Whereas the daughter Sophie is steady and sensible, her mother Naomi is flighty and self-involved. Sophie worships her mother but can see only too clearly that Naomi has other things on her mind such as her music and friends. It is no secret that family friend Jim is deeply in love with mother Naomi, and he is always there to make sure that Sophie is provided for. Jim is like a surrogate father taking care of the everyday school details that her mother tends to forget. Naomi is so caught up in her music career, she takes Jim for granted and sometimes does not give Sophie her full attention.

Rebecca Rotert is a former singer herself, and the scenes that take place in the Blue Angel capture the nightclub life well, but what gives this novel its edge is the voice of the daughter Sophie. I don’t always care for child narrators, but in this case it works. The best way to let us see this girl’s situation is through her own eyes. Sophie is not popular in her school and has no friends until Elizabeth arrives, but other people’s racial attitudes get in the way of their friendship. Also the fact that Sophie’s mother is a nightclub singer does not sit well with Elizabeth’s family.

We get the story of Naomi’s small town family in Kansas and her escape to Chicago and a singing career, but this background is nowhere near as vivid as the Chicago story. Two of Naomi’s friends from Kansas, cross-dresser Rita and the Catholic nun Sister Idalia, follow Naomi to Chicago. The pieces fit together a little too neatly as Sister Idalia is now Sophie’s teacher in parochial school, but this does not detract from the story.

The mother/daughter relationship at the center of the novel resonates with emotion as Sophie starts to question some of her mother’s behavior which she formerly accepted unconditionally. She is growing up but is still vulnerable. You will be moved by ‘Last Night at the Blue Angel’.

 

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