Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm: A Novel

Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm: A Novel

by Laura Warrell
Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm: A Novel

Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm: A Novel

by Laura Warrell


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Listen to Laura Warrell in conversation about Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm on Poured Over: The B&N Podcast.


Notes From Your Bookseller

This is a family drama with fathers, mothers and daughters all scored with a soundtrack of jazz music. When one man must navigate the relationships between the women he loves and has loved in the past along with his own teenage daughter, Laura Warrell’s lyrical prose and sweeping story bring us on a ride. This novel has a lot of heart and power told through the kind of voices readers will return to again and again.

GMA BUZZ PICK • How do we find belonging when love is unrequited? A "gorgeously written debut" (Celeste Ng, best-selling author of Little Fires Everywhere) filled with jazz and soul, about the perennial temptations of dangerous love, told by the women who love Circus Palmer—trumpet player and old-school ladies’ man—as they ultimately discover the power of their own voices.

“Elegant, unexpected and…unforgettable.” —New York Times Book Review
“A modern masterpiece.” —Jason Reynolds, best-selling author of Look Both Ways     

It’s 2013, and Circus Palmer, a forty-year-old Boston-based trumpet player and old-school ladies’ man, lives for his music and refuses to be tied down. Before a gig in Miami, he learns that the woman who is secretly closest to his heart, the free-spirited drummer Maggie, is pregnant by him. Instead of facing the necessary conversation, Circus flees, setting off a chain of interlocking revelations from the various women in his life.

Most notable among them is his teenage daughter, Koko, who idolizes him and is awakening to her own sexuality even as her mentally fragile mother struggles to overcome her long-failed marriage and rejection by Circus. Delivering a lush orchestration of diverse female voices, Warrell spins a provocative, soulful, and gripping story of passion and risk, fathers and daughters, wives and single women, and, finally, hope and reconciliation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593316443
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/27/2022
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 400,868
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

LAURA WARRELL is a contributor to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Tin House Summer Workshop, and is a graduate of the creative writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, The Rumpus, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She has taught creative writing and literature at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and through the Emerging Voices Fellowship at PEN America in Los Angeles, where she lives.

Read an Excerpt


The girl may have been the end for him. The end’s beginning, like the bend of a road too slight to notice where it leads. She could have happened to him a day later or a day before, but she was there on that day, in that moment, just hours after Circus Palmer turned forty, a predictable time for a certain kind of end to come, and just seconds after Maggie slid her hand from his wrist and with her lips parted just enough to slip his finger through if he’d wanted, whispered, “I have something to tell you.”
Outstretched on a chaise longue beside the hotel pool, Cir­cus watched from a distance as the girl—in her mid-twenties, he figured—did cartwheels alone on the beach, her linen skirt falling open to bare the smooth plane of her hips and the slide of her calves sloping up to her toes. She lured his eyes away from Maggie, who was lying in another chaise longue beside him. All afternoon Maggie had been acting strangely, staring at nothing and losing the thread of conversations. This wasn’t Maggie. Cir­cus figured whatever it was she had to say wasn’t anything he wanted to hear, so he let his attention be taken by the girl doing flips back and forth across the sand. When she landed on her feet, her hair lashed across her back like a whip, her shoulders lifted and hands spread beneath the melon sunset as if she carried it on her fingertips. Hips, calves, toes, shoulders, hands, she circled in the air again.
“I wasn’t going to say anything.” Maggie hummed, the sound not fully making its way to him, not quite breaking through his focus. “But I thought you should know.”
If she were any other woman, he would have told her to come to the point. But this was Maggie, so he waited, a sense of dread needling in his gut. Chewing at the inside of his cheek—always his mouth needed something to do—he concentrated on the melody the girl made inside his head as he tapped a nervous rhythm on his knee.
“Listen to what I’m telling you.” The push in Maggie’s voice, major-keyed and salty, brought Circus back to the cabana, back to the Wild Turkey warm in his glass and Maggie beside him. Her lips were pursed as she stroked her long neck and watched the night begin to fall, possibly without noticing the girl, possibly trying not to.
Six days earlier, after not seeing each other for weeks, they’d arrived in Miami and hastily made their way to the hotel in order to get into a bed together. They’d paid extra for a room with a round marble bathtub where they could spend mornings sipping champagne before heading out to the city to visit Little Havana markets and smoke cigars. On the nights Circus played in the horn section of his friend’s band—the reason they’d made the trip—Maggie went into the city on her own, dancing in salsa bars and kicking drummers off their kits so she could play. And when he wasn’t gigging, they found hole-in-the-wall clubs where they could jam onstage with the band. Other players would recognize Maggie on occasion, asking what it was like to drum behind jazz greats and rock stars, and she’d tell stories about filled stadiums and rowdy tour buses, letting them craft fantasies around her. Usually Circus liked being the storyteller in a room, but watching Maggie hold court gave him a charge. That morning she’d sung Happy Birthday” to him playing a ukulele while wearing her bikini bottoms and a birthday hat. He’d laughed and lusted and wished they’d never have to leave the room.
But now this.
He’d come to Miami to draw a clean line between his first forty years and his next, and he’d invited Maggie because she was the only female in his life who knew how to be easy. He didn’t love traveling with women. A woman in the room meant ending the night back at the hotel where she was waiting.
“Sorry, baby.” He stroked her knee. “I’m listening.”
The air was slick with heat, the sky in full dusk. A breeze stuck in the palm trees clung stubbornly to coconuts instead of drifting down to cool him. As Maggie sipped a Manhattan, Circus felt crowded in a way he never had with her before.
“The sun’s going down.” He finished his drink and looked around for the server to bring another. “Why isn’t it getting cooler?”
A barman came with a bottle of bourbon from the other side of the deck, and Circus listened to the soft burble of the pour. Beside him, Maggie hiked up her dress to let the breeze reach across her brown thighs. He couldn’t stop himself from looking. To him, she’d always seemed designed rather than birthed, her body lean with crisp angles and slight curves. Circus resented her then for knowing how to steal his gaze from whatever spot on the horizon it had settled on, and he squirmed, sensing the tie lodged somewhere deep inside where he didn’t have access, the tie that attached him to her over three years—loosely, but attached nonetheless.
After the barman went away, he said, “I remember when I was a little tyke, me and my buddies did the math to see how old we’d be in 1999. Thought we’d be flying around in spaceships by then. Now here we are, 2013.” He looked over at Maggie, who didn’t seem to be listening. “Time, man.”
She answered only, “Light me a cigarette.”
Circus reached into his pants on the cement, pulled two Marl­boros from the pack, lit them, and handed one to Maggie. He liked watching her smoke—the moist spread of her lips and the way she always let the tip of the cigarette linger at her mouth before she took a hit.
“I was late.” Casually, she ashed the cigarette into the air. “So I took the test.”
He let out a hard breath he didn’t know had been stuck in his throat and waited for her to smile, to laugh, to do something to let him know she was joking. “I don’t believe it.”
“Believe, sugar.”
“We’re careful.”
“Only sometimes.”
“You sure it’s mine?”
The corner of her mouth lifted. “Nice try.”
“I’ll be damned.” Circus opened his legs wider across the chaise. “We’re like a couple teenagers.”
A chuckle tapered out of Maggie’s mouth with a velvety line of smoke. “I didn’t think it could happen. Not with the number of years I got on me.”
“Baby, you’re not of this world. Who knows the miracles that body can do.” He took her hand, kissed the inside of her wrist, and linked his fingers through hers. “I got you, darlin’. We’ll take care of things when we get back to Boston.”
She ashed the cigarette again, winced.
The cigarette smoking between Maggie’s fingers and the liquor in her glass reassured him momentarily, but then he noticed the edge in her gaze.
“Maggie, come on,” he said.
“I’m thinking.”
“What’s there to think about?”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a fool.”
“You know nothing good could come of this. Shit, I already got a kid barely talks to me.”
“Koko would talk to you plenty if you saw her once in a while.”
“Jesus, Maggie, don’t ask me to do something I’m no good at.”
“I didn’t ask you for a damn thing.”
Circus’s body seized as if everything keeping him alive had shut down at once. He tried to stay calm but felt like a cage was rising around him. He imagined climbing back through the moments of the day and settling into the space where he didn’t know so it wasn’t yet true, where she hadn’t yet told him so he was still free.
“Don’t do this to me,” he said. “Everything’s about to happen, you know this. I got Peacock Evans trying to set me up with that producer in New York so I gotta be ready, gotta focus. Man, just talking about it’s giving me the jitters.”
On the other side of the pool, a woman glanced up, letting her opened book fall to her chest to watch them. He was used to being watched with Maggie. They were loud and beautiful together.
Circus lowered his voice. “You got everything you could want in your world. You want some kid messing that up? You gonna let some kid get in the way of me finally having what I want? Don’t mess with what we got. You’re brilliant and kinky and don’t need jack from anybody. You’re my wildcat, Mags. Don’t get soft on me.”
When Maggie turned her eyes, Circus knew he had the choice to take back what he’d said or let it widen between them. Maggie rose from the chair, her body blocking his sun. He braced himself, his hand sweating around his glass. Maggie’s tall frame towered over him, holding him down. Even his clothes seemed to pull at their seams.
“Say something else,” she said.
He took a defiant sip of his bourbon. “You’re no mother.”
Maggie collected her bag and stormed across the deck, back inside the hotel. He was surprised to feel a twinge of regret at her walking away, but a swig of bourbon took care of that. It was the dread that stayed in his gut and grew solid, so that the only relief came from down the beach where the girl was pinwheeling through the air.

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