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: 

Interview with the Author: 

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What Others are Saying: 

Jewish Book Council:

Kirkus Reviews:

Los Angeles Times:

Publishers Weekly: 

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

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