Moody and musical ... Warrell excels at describing these points of contact — more often bruising impact than connection — conveying the varying degrees of longing, loneliness, and even aversion that can bring two people together ... She’s also skilled at describing jazz — and, perhaps more important, what the music means to a musician ... Despite this sensitive portrayal, the book does have occasional off notes ... The specificity — the ripped-from-the-headlines quality — feels jarring, at least to this Boston-area reader ... Warrell does much better when she sticks to the timeless dance we humans do: between love and fear, the need to embrace and the search for self. For Circus, Koko, and the score of others in this sprawling and ambitious book, it’s an improvisation, and at its best, it’s beautiful.
... patchy but soulful ... Structured like a jam session, the novel favors a series of riffs over any one melodic theme. Warrell gives a supporting cast of women their own solos, through close-third-person chapters that detail their entanglements with the elusive Circus ... the reader longs for actual scenes showing who they were together, showing Circus’s capacity for love to counterbalance his fetish for leaving. Without that, his protestations feel thin...Other threads are left tantalizingly loose too...Warrell outlines fascinating satellite characters who beg to be filled in ... certain passages as elegant, unexpected and wrenching as the 'fierce' sounds that emerge from Circus’s trumpet.
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.
... reads like smooth jazz music, with a full cast of interlocking characters creating a complex harmony that I could not get enough of. Circus Palmer is our main character, an aging and floundering jazz musician who charms and cheats on the women in his life. Never have I wanted so badly to grab a character by the shoulders and shake some sense into him! The women truly take center stage in this story, loved and abandoned by Circus in turns. The narrative was full of angst, but the ending was sweet and redemptive.
First-time novelist Warrell tells this powerful, polyphonic tale mainly through the voices of those people Circus loves and leaves ... All of these narrators appear and reappear as recurring motifs in the fugue-like tapestry of Circus’ life, each playing a variation on the theme of this deeply flawed but charismatic man’s hold on them, but also displaying their determination to establish individual lives. Maggie, whom Circus abandons after she reveals she’s pregnant with his child, and Koko, struggling with her sexual coming-of-age, are at the emotional center of a novel that ripples with passion and the ineffable sadness of relationships run aground. And yet, at the end, there is an uplifting sense of possibility, a deeply satisfying tonic chord set against the dissonance that has come before. Jazz, Circus reminds us, 'sweetens the soul,' and so it is in this remarkably assured, unforgettable debut.
Warrell plays her exceptional first novel with plenty of rhythm and tenderness, delivered in brisk, mordantly gorgeous language that has its own natural flow ... Each woman has her own life, her own story—none is defined by Circus, though all are touched by him—and as in any good jazz piece these stories play off one another seamlessly. In the end, Circus isn’t just damager but damaged, coming to terms with his limits and learning to reach out, an understanding that Warrell movingly delivers ... A highly recommended story of love and life that makes beautiful music.
... impressive ... Vivid, poignant portraits of these women are interspersed with the separate struggles of both Circus and Koko to get through transitions that have little in common with each other except pain and shame. Though this is her first novel, Warrell displays delicately wrought characterization and a formidable command of physical and emotional detail. Her more intimate set pieces deliver sensual, erotic vibrations, and, most crucially for a novel that takes its title from Jelly Roll Morton, she knows how to write about the way it feels to deliver jazz—and receive it ... A captivating modern romance evoking love, loss, recovery, and redemption.