KÜNSTLERS IN PARADISE, by Cathleen Schine
In 19th-century English novels, there was a pattern that seemed to occur with alarming frequency: Fate — in the form of inclement weather, a twisted ankle, a touch of rheum — would strand a visitor at some neighboring estate for weeks at a time. As a teenage reader I used to envy those marooned guests, generally girls of marriageable age whose circumscribed lives needed some shaking up. A fortnight away from home with your own room and a besotted suitor (one always materialized) on the premises? Count me in. Also, let’s bring back “fortnight.”
Julian Künstler, the intellectually curious but directionless 24-year-old at the center of Cathleen Schine’s diverting 12th novel, needs a change of scene as much as any Victorian heroine. The Brooklyn bookstore where he works has closed down, his roommate has decamped for law school and his girlfriend dumps Julian after declaring, “You’re emotionally withholding, but you never stop talking about your emotions.” (Harsh.) Julian’s mother calls him a “luftmensch”; his father says he’s a woolgatherer. “But a woolgatherer gathers wool, his mother responded, and where, may I ask, is the wool? She worried. They both worried.”
As always, Schine’s delight in language is contagious — she offers up words like baubles, turning them this way and that to catch the light.
Enter an act of nature. At his 93-year-old grandmother’s suggestion, Julian moves into her Venice, Calif., guesthouse to help while her fractured wrist heals — and then Covid-19 hits. Stuck for the duration, he is not a happy camper. Sure, the honeysuckle in Mamie’s glorious garden perfume his days, and Agatha, her live-in assistant, provides comic relief and serves nightly martinis on a “jingling tray.”
But he’s bored ensconced with two old ladies and guilt-ridden that he’s cosseted in Los Angeles, where the pandemic isn’t yet raging, while his family is in lockdown back East. Mamie — who arrived in L.A. with her Austrian Jewish family in 1939, barely escaping the Nazi scourge — sympathizes. “Until it happens to you, you cannot know what it is like to be an exile, a perpetual stranger,” she tells him. She quotes Christopher Isherwood: “I am bitterly ashamed that I am here in safety.”
The parallels between them, which the book circles back to like a musical refrain, feel forced. Jews who’ve fled the Holocaust and a spoiled Gen Zer lounging in his grandma’s guesthouse are different animals, Covid or no. But the way both Mamie and Julian fall for California’s charms, despite their worries about those left behind, rings true. To fill their days and to “fan the spark” Mamie sees in her drifting grandson (“I’m down to embers, myself,” she says), she begins telling him the story of her life.
Ejected from her cultured existence in Vienna with her mother, grandfather and composer father when she was just 11, she found their new home enchanting from the start. There was “glamour everywhere. Excess everywhere. Absurdity everywhere. It was like being at the zoo.” And the inhabitants, L.A.’s émigré artist community, were exotic and welcoming. Mamie attended parties at Thomas Mann’s and took tennis lessons with Arnold Schoenberg. A chance beach encounter with Greta Garbo turned into something much more. Fascinated, Julian writes it all down in his Moleskine (you can take the boy out of Brooklyn…), then retells the stories to Sophie, the cute girl he meets while walking the dog. Maybe he can use Mamie’s memories in the futuristic screenplay he’s started writing, “Exiles in Space.” So long, ennui!
A paean to the regenerative power of storytelling and to Los Angeles itself, “Künstlers in Paradise” is also an invitation to leave the familiar behind. In any century, seeing the world through someone else’s windows just might change everything.
Kim Hubbard, the former books editor at People, is a freelance writer and editor.
KÜNSTLERS IN PARADISE | By Cathleen Schine | 272 pp. | Henry Holt & Company | $26.99
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