Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano

Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolitano is a remarkable ode to the power inherent in the belief that everyone deserves love. The novel cleverly references Little Women as four of the main characters are sisters similar to the March siblings. Hello Beautiful never forces connections to the classic tale but instead intertwines them seamlessly. Most of the action takes place over a few decades beginning in 1978 in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood with its blend of Mexican and Italian communities and on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston. Napolitano captures the old Lozano Library, murals, taverns, and parks that make Pilsen unique. Her attention to detail also contributes to strong portraits of each of the four sisters, their parents, and their brother-in-law William who are well-delineated characters whose actions realistically support the ingenious plot. 

Julia, the eldest sister, is a Northwestern student and a careful planner who’s mapped every detail of her life. When she meets William, a basketball player who’s studying history, she guides him toward becoming a history professor and doesn’t realize how much he loves basketball when a knee injury keeps him from playing. William, whose three-year-old sister died when he was only a few days old, has never felt deserving of love because his parents’ grief left them incapable of showing him affection. When he joins Julia’s large, expressive Italian family, he’s enveloped in their inclusiveness and total involvement in each other. Julia orchestrates their actions including her pregnancy shortly after they marry. When their daughter arrives, William falls into a deep depression and they divorce when he fears he will ruin his daughter’s life. 

I refuse to spoil this beautiful story by giving away the surprising twists that occur in each of the sisters’ and William’s lives and in their learning to find ways to accept that they are worthy of being loved and of loving others after Julia and William divorce. In addition to Julia, each of her sisters is unique. I was so invested in them that I found myself crying happy tears when each character found ways of connection and acceptance along with tears of sadness when circumstances interfered. Napolitano also built remarkable minor characters that I adored. William and Julia’s daughter Alice, a precocious child, had me on tenterhooks with worry because she was so well portrayed and I was invested in her future. My favorite character is William’s former teammate Kent who nurtures him and helps him find self-worth in a career he loves. The way Kent enables William to find himself and love again is both poignant and strong. Supportive male friendships that aren’t caricatures are seldom seen in novels today making their relationship one to celebrate.

Each character in this novel is real to me so I was tempted to drive to Pilsen to walk the streets, enter the parks, and stare at the murals because I was certain I’d see members of the Padavano family there. This is a novel filled with beauty and sadness because that’s real life and it’s made even more real because of its setting.

Napolitano’s 2020 novel Dear William captured me with its caring rendering of the life of a boy who was the only survivor of a plane accident. It also showed how we can become whole by loving one another. In Hello Beautiful, Napolitano outdoes herself with a cast of characters that teaches us that life is hard, but we can endure. 

Summing it Up: Read Hello Beautiful for a big-hearted family saga that will envelop you completely as you enter Chicago’s Pilsen community and become a part of the Padavano family. Select this for your book club as these characters will remain with you and you’ll want to talk about them with friends. 

For Chicagoans, this is a must-read with the neighborhood settings and even a brief visit to the glory days of the Chicago Bulls.

Rating: 5 Stars 

Publication Date: March 14, 2023

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Author Website: https://annnapolitano.com/ 

What Others are Saying:

Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/ann-napolitano/hello-beautiful/ 

New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/11/books/review/hello-beautiful-ann-napolitano.html  

Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9780593243732 

“This sumptuous family saga is one of those rare novels whose singular characters are so beautifully rendered, it’s as if they’re your best friends, and you’re grateful to be in their orbit. Napolitano’s homage to Little Women, albeit set in late-20th century Chicago, will prompt you to slow down as you read, never wanting the book to end. When it does, prepare for tears.”—Oprah Quarterly

“Sweeping . . . With the vibrant and close-knit Pilson neighborhood playing a supporting role, Napolitano’s latest novel investigates the deep, maddeningly frustrating, and ever-present love of family, whether tied by genetics or by choice.”—Booklist, starred review

“This is a richly woven story about family, but it’s also a unique take on Little Women. There are no heroes or villains here, only people—flawed and loving and striving like the rest of us. ‘Generosity’ is the word that comes to mind when I reflect on this gorgeous novel.”—Allegra Goodman, New York Times bestselling author of The Cookbook Collector and Sam

“Hello Beautiful is the work of a great author at the height of her powers. Equally immersive, emotional, and brilliantly crafted, this is an early contender for best novel of the year.”—J. Ryan Stradal, New York Times bestselling author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest and The Lager Queen of Minnesota


Monday, March 13, 2023

Künstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine

Künstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine is a spectacular novel. It’s a charming and important recollection of 1940s Southern California and the lives of the Jewish families who moved there to escape Germany and Austria before World War II coupled with a compelling, poignant, and droll tale of life in quarantine in the early days of Covid in Los Angeles. Julian Künstler, a 23-year-old aspiring writer and sporadic student of varying subjects, loses his part-time job, his girlfriend, and his roommate in early 2020. His parents won’t give him money to keep his NYC apartment so when Mamie, his 93-year-old grandmother, breaks her wrist, his parents think: “removing their son from the disarray of his life and depositing him into Mamie’s disarray—the perfect solution. He heads to Venice, California where Mamie lives in a 1920s bungalow with Agatha, her cook and companion, a woman she refers to as her “dogsbody.”

While Julian settles in, Mamie begins to share stories of her life beginning in 1939 in Vienna when she was eleven and her accomplished Jewish family including her screenwriter mother, her pianist father, and her grandfather fled the Nazis. Schine cleverly uses language that illuminates the Künstler family as Mamie describes her uncle to Julian: “Uncle Gustav was yelling . . . in Yiddish! The forbidden, vulgar language of the shtetl, of the Jewish slums.” . . . “We never spoke what we Viennese considered a mongrel language, the speech of the poor, of Eastern European Jews, unenlightened, practically medieval.” 

“Künstler snobbery,” Julian said, nodding.

As Mamie continues weaving her tales, Covid arrives so the unlikely trio quarantines together and Julian’s presence becomes essential. As they share meals and cocktail hours in the garden, Julian’s parents remain in New York. Schine seamlessly explores the similarity between the Jewish exile in the paradise of 1940 Los Angeles and the lush garden paradise of California in 2020 when so many in New York City were dying of Covid. Mamie’s ruminations on her family’s arrival in Los Angeles before the war felt similar to the feelings of so many in 2020: “No one was happy here at first, Mamie thought. But neither were we dead.” 

Mamie is a magnificent character described by Julian’s mother as “exotic and quixotic.” “Neurotic, his father would add.” She was an accomplished violinist who'd traveled the world performing. At 93, her hair was orange-red, Julian “thought it was because she had planted herself in her new world and was determined that people see her there. Her hair was celebratory: she had survived.” Her remembrances are as colorful as her hair especially as she tells of her close relationships with Greta Garbo and composer Arnold Schoenberg and of her family’s friendships with Aldous Huxley, Anita Loos, Christopher Isherwood and others. Julian asks, “You met Charlie Chaplain? Really?” “A nodding acquaintance,” states Mamie. Those encounters make the reader feel as if they were guests at he parties that only occurred in late afternoons because the German and Austria émigrés had to abide by a wartime curfew at 8 p.m. 

Julian takes careful notes of Mamie’s memories to use in his screenplay, Exiles in Space, as his grandmother describes her past and he becomes closer to her and grows in empathy while beginning to feel that he has a purpose. As the novel begins, he isn't as exciting a character as his grandmother or as humorous a one as is the stalwart Agatha with her ever-present pocketbook and its can of Mace. Instead, the reader gets to watch his growth as he becomes more comfortable with himself.

Summing it Up: Read Künstlers in Paradise to experience five generations of a family from their roots in a fairy-tale life in early twentieth-century Vienna to survivor guilt in sunny California, followed by assimilation in 21st-century New York City. Sit in the lush garden listening as Mamie shares her memories with her grandson Julian. Experience the power of story to connect us and help us find ourselves as you revel in Mamie’s witty wordplay and wisdom as in these sentences: “I do not believe in life after death,” Mamie said. “I sometimes have trouble believing in life before death; it is all so improbable.” Buy this book and embed yourself in Maggie, Agatha, and Julian’s beautiful, improbable world.

A personal note: I wish my mother were alive to read this novel. She loved reading about the period before World War II and appreciated clever banter and exquisite sentences. In 1939 at age seventeen, she spent two months in England and France with her aunt and uncle. She told me stories about her trip and I have both the journal she kept and the passenger list from her return on the S. S. Normandie in June, 1939. Seeing names like Rosenfeld, Rosenberg, Schoeneman, Schulz, and Yaffe listed alongside American citizens including Avery Brundage and actor Ray Milland and European princes, princesses, barons, and baronesses make Shine’s story and research even more real for me. I particularly related to the stories about actors as Mom’s journal and subsequent conversations showed how enamored she was with seeing and talking with Ray Milland.

Rating: 5 Stars 

Publication Date: February 14, 2023

Category: Dessert, Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie (Historical Fiction), Super Nutrition, Book Club

Author Website: https://cathleenschine.me/ 

Interview with the Author: https://cathleenschine.me/knstlers-in-paradise-qa 

Watch this: https://www.nbcnewyork.com/on-air/as-seen-on/bills-books/bills-books-two-novels-and-a-festival-honoring-a-great-american-author/4148595/

What Others are Saying: 

Jewish Book Council: https://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/kunstlers-in-paradise

Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/cathleen-schine/kunstlers-in-paradise/

Los Angeles Times: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2023-03-10/l-a-transplant-novelist-cathleen-schines-love-letter-to-its-refugee-generations

Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9781250805904 

Dreamy, drifty, and droll, studded with lush botanical description and historical gems. Schine’s many fans will enjoy."

—Kirkus Reviews

"Reading like a cross between Leopoldstadt and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, this does the trick as an emotionally resonant meditation on family, memory, and the need for stories."

—Publishers Weekly

"Few authors could pull off what Cathleen Schine does in Künstlers in Paradise: creating a seamless, multilayered saga about family dynamics and relationships, immigration, the early days of Hollywood and the often disturbingly cyclical nature of history. . . . Künstlers in Paradise is truly a trove of unexpected rewards." 

—BookPage, Starred Review