By Wendy Thomas
Lounging by the pool of a Miami hotel, jazz trumpeter Circus Palmer gets a shock that sends him reeling into the arms of any and every woman who will have him.
Minutes after learning he’s going to be a father for the second time, he’s playing his trumpet for the sexy young woman who’s been turning cartwheels on the beach, distracting him from his latest love interest and her surprising news.
Here begins “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm,” the debut novel by Laura Warrell. Circus, a whiskey-drinking, cigarette- smoking, hard-living musician, won’t let anything stand in the way of his dream of fame—not even a child with his true love, up-and-coming drummer Maggie.
It’s his 40th birthday and Circus knows time is running out for his big break. Younger, hipper musicians are edging him out, some of them his own music students. So he runs.
The novel is told as a series of vignettes, with Circus and the many women in his life alternately telling their stories. There is a rhythm to the stories that is not unlike jazz, weaving together seemingly disparate notes into one melodic whole.
Each character has a unique and rich inner life, and adds vibrancy and new insight into themselves and Circus through the moments they have with him. Most of which, unsurprisingly, end in heartbreak. Circus’ first attempt at fatherhood was rocky, and his relationship with his 14-yearold daughter is tenuous and sporadic.
Sassy and fearless, Koko isn’t afraid to ask for what she wants, except when it comes to her father, who sees her as yet another woman making demands on him and dragging him down. She wants life experience, and her choices lead her down a potentially dangerous path, flirting with the seduction of her handsome English teacher and discovering some very dark secrets while doing so.
Koko’s coming-of-age story is poignant, and the emotional life of a young teen is depicted with honesty and compassion. Other stories come from Pia, Circus’ exwife who is still searching for something to fill the void that he left when he moved out five years before, and bartender Peach, who is coyly toying with him, hoping he will be more than a one-night stand.
Weaving through all of these lives is a yearning, and Warrell captures it so viscerally that readers can’t help but connect deeply with the characters. This yearning is strongest in Circus, who has trouble seeing beyond the next gig/woman/drink and is motivated solely by his own gratification. The women around him focus their longing on him, which only serves to propel him further out of their reach.
Still, the story is filled with hope, and the characters continue to evolve as they move through the book. Though not a conventional Valentine’s Day romance, lonely hearts and happily coupled folks will find a lot to love in this beautifully written and captivating tale.
Additionally, Circus’ African, Shawnee, English and Native Hawaiian heritage, along with a racially diverse cast of secondary characters, makes this a great pick for February’s Black History Month.
Want to check it out? “Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm” is available at denverlibrary.org in book, e-book and audio e-book formats.
Wendy Thomas is a librarian at the Smiley Branch Library. When not reading or recommending books, you can find her hiking with her dogs.