Last Night at the Blue Angel

Written by Rebecca Rotert
Review by Helene Williams

Naomi Hill wants to be famous, with her name up in lights, and she’s got the voice to make that happen. She leaves rural Kansas in 1954, escaping the poverty-stricken family and community that didn’t understand her, winding up in the Windy City, where she learns some more of life’s hard lessons. Over the years, she builds up a great team of supporters: her daughter Sophia, her friend and photographer Jim, and a colorful cast of mentors, lovers, and confidantes, ranging from Sister Idalia to the cross-dressing Ricky/Rita. In 1960s Chicago, this motley group embodies the changes happening across social classes and throughout American culture. Jazz music is entering the mainstream music world, gender and race issues are beginning to be openly discussed, and the nuclear family has exploded. Some parts of the past, though, as seen in Chicago’s classic architecture through Jim’s camera lens, are worth preserving, and sorting out what can be kept and what should be tossed has a steep price.

We see Naomi’s painful past juxtaposed with eleven-year-old Sophia’s worries about today and the future; their alternating narratives converge as Naomi at last achieves her goal. The dissonance created by Sophia being the more reliable, adult narrator and Naomi the childish and self-centered one adds depth to the narrative. We can’t help but be sucked in by Naomi’s desire to be loved as a perfect icon, and at the same time there’s no way around the fact that she is blind to the unconditional love of those standing right next to her. This tale is intricately woven, with several intense subplots and a cast of memorable characters, all of which ring true. Rotert’s page-turner is filled with apt observations and vivid images which will remain with the reader long after the curtain comes down.