Published July 2014 by HarperCollins; paperback release April 2015 by William Morrow Paperbacks
Source: I bought my copy at the Omaha Lit Fest and had it autographed!
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 ten 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. Her only constant is the colorful and unconventional family that surrounds them, particularly the photographer Jim who is Sophia's best friend, surrogate father, and protector—but Jim is also deeply in love with Naomi.
"Mother is a singer. I live in her dark margins."Do you remember the scene from the movie "Jerry Maguire" when Renee Zellweger's character says to Tom Cruise's character "You had me at hello?" That's the way I felt when I read those first two sentences of Chapter 1. Rotert's debut is beautifully written, filled with characters who will stay with me for a long time.
Told through a dual narrative, Rotert uses Sophia's voice to tell the story of their life in early 1960's Chicago while Naomi's past is seen through Sophie's eyes. It goes a long way to helping readers understand Naomi, not to look at her as an abusive parent, a woman who raises her daughter in a run-down apartment building, keeps her up late into the night, brings strangers home to spend the night and who is utterly absorbed in herself and her career. Instead we come to understand her need to desire to rise above the poverty of her youth, her need for love and her inability to accept it.
"I love David or perhaps I just found a way to matter to him, to be noticed. He has made me feel small and I hate him for that but I also long for him. I'm embarrassed."
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In speaking about music in this book, last fall at the Omaha Lit Fest, Rotert said that she was raised on the American songbook so had Naomi raised this way as well so that she could use the music to show generational tensions. She said that authors have to choose what not to give their characters as well as what to give them. She chose not to give Naomi the chance to have her own voice, the ability to express herself only in song. Naomi was then left to express herself only through others which made her a less healthy person intentionally. Rotert said that in using music in her book, it was about trusting the reader to understand that the references advance the story even if they don't know the music. Despite all of the music in the book, Rotert said she writes in quiet.
I'm a little giddy about the kind of writing talent Omaha is turning out these days: Timothy Shaffert, Rainbow Rowell, and now Rebecca Rotert are all writers I'm delighted to share this city with. Maybe there's something in the water. Perhaps it's time to consider writing that novel?!