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Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm

Review

Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm

Circus Palmer, the character at the center of Laura Warrell’s debut, is defined as much by his absence as by his presence. The novel unfurls through a series of vignettes, many of which read like fully developed short stories, most from the points of view of women who have had some connection with him and find themselves longing for the now distant jazzman they once (or maybe still) loved.

"Warrell is a talented writer, and just like a skillful jazz musician, she manages to infuse each of her portraits with something new and novel..."

Circus himself is 40 and, on the surface of things, a relative success in his field. A jazz trumpeter, he teaches at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, and is in demand for gigs in Boston and beyond. But it’s clear that he feels like his best years are rapidly slipping away. When a producer expresses interest in hearing a demo album, it feels like his last shot, especially since virtually everyone he encounters reminds him that almost no one listens to jazz anymore. As he says near the end of the novel, “You know you’re gonna hit a moment in life when there’s nowhere else for you to go, you’re not going any farther. Everything you’re gonna do and be is already in place, so you hit that plateau, right, and just coast until the end.”

But just as Circus is inexorably drawn to jazz, he’s also irresistibly drawn to women. A consummate flirt, he can’t sit down at a bar for a drink or even take a subway ride to an appointment without turning on the charm for whatever lovely lady happens to cross his path. More often than not, the women fall for those charms, despite their best intentions. There’s Pia, his ex-wife; Peach, a bartender with whom he makes a major mistake; Odessa, the subway woman whom he treats with genuine kindness; and Maggie, a world-class drummer who also happens to be pregnant with his baby. And experiencing a longing and a lack of a different sort is Koko, his teenage daughter, who longs for her father even as she also (for better or for worse) is establishing her own definitions of what love and sex look like.

Heartbreak and longing take different forms in SWEET, SOFT, PLENTY RHYTHM, but sometimes the stories can take on a sort of sameness. Nevertheless, Warrell is a talented writer, and just like a skillful jazz musician, she manages to infuse each of her portraits with something new and novel --- a sort of variation on a theme, if you will. Her writing is fluid and easy, even when it’s about physical or emotional violence. The moments of grace her characters encounter feel like the satisfaction of striking the one perfect chord of resolution after a long period of restlessness and tension.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 30, 2022

Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm
by Laura Warrell

  • Publication Date: September 27, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0593316444
  • ISBN-13: 9780593316443