Set against the turbulence of 1960s Chicago - a city in transformation - and its legendary jazz scene, Last Night at the Blue Angel is a lush and immensely heartfelt mother-daughter tale about a talented but troubled singer's relationship with her precocious 10-year-old daughter.
It is the early 1960s, and Chicago is teeming with the tensions of the day - segregation, sexual experimentation, the Cold War and Vietnam - but it is also home to some of the country's most influential jazz. Naomi Hill, a singer at the Blue Angel club, has been poised on the brink of stardom for nearly 10 years. But when her big break, the cover of Look magazine, finally arrives, it carries with it an enormous personal cost. Sensual and magnetic, Naomi is a fiercely ambitious yet self-destructive woman whose charms tend to hurt those around her, and no one knows this better than her daughter, Sophia.
As the only child of a single mother growing up in an adult world, Sophia is wise beyond her years, a casualty of her mother's desperate struggle for fame and adoration. Unsettled by her home life, she harbors a terrible fear that her world could disappear at any moment, and compulsively maintains a list of everyday objects she might need to reinvent should nuclear catastrophe strike. Her only constant is the colorful and unconventional family that surrounds her and her mother, particularly the photographer, Jim, who is Sophia's best friend, surrogate father, and protector - but Jim is also deeply in love with Naomi.
Weaving between the perspectives of Sophia and Naomi, Last Night at the Blue Angel is a poignant and unforgettable story about what happens when our passion for the life we want is at sharp odds with the life we have. Part stylish period piece, part heartbreaking family drama, it's a novel rife with revelations, a vivid and propulsive listen - and the major debut of an extraordinary new writer.
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Not the most enjoyable book, although it was well written. I disliked the character of Naomi. I liked Caitlin Davies narration but thought Andrus Nichols was too cold.
There were some very cinematic moments in the story, and it would lend itself well to film. It would be a pretty serious movie, though.
- Ruth Bain