Künstlers in Paradise: A Novel
- By Cathleen Schine
- Henry Holt & Co.
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Kristin H. Macomber
- March 27, 2023
A family’s riveting, multigenerational saga unspools amid the pandemic lockdown.
Remember how disconcerting it was, just a few years ago, to watch a program or movie that depicted people blithely crowding into elevators, blowing out candles, shaking hands — all without even a whiff of concern regarding face-masking or hand-sanitizing or social-distancing?
Upon delving into Cathleen Schine’s latest novel, Künstlers in Paradise, readers may find themselves in a curious state of reverse nostalgia — as in, thank God those early covid days are over! And yet, those vaccine-less months, when family members were unexpectedly bunking together for unforeseen stretches, turned out to be a cross-generational-storytelling gold mine.
Künstlers in Paradise is a novel that unfolds under these precise silver-lining circumstances. It’s a tale of one family’s history lived in two imperfect paradises — their fairytale home in Vienna before the Nazis began marching in the streets, and the California paradise known as Tinseltown, where three generations of Kunstlers were relocated to in 1939.
Alas, there is now but one Künstler alive who had a foot in both worlds. Her name is Salomea Künstler, known as Mamie to all. From her perspective as both the family’s youngest WWII refugee and now, at age 93, its oldest survivor, Mamie is the keeper of a personal history she’s spent a lifetime moving up and away from, glossing over private memories and forever keeping horrific nightmares on lockdown.
As both unfortunate timing and bad luck would have it, self-reliant Mamie now finds herself in need of more assistance than her irascible housekeeper can provide, just as Julian, her twentysomething grandson, has suffered the trifecta of losing his Brooklyn roommate, his girlfriend, and his paltry paycheck. How better to put Julian’s unfortunate limbo to good use than to ship him to the West Coast to keep an eye on the family matriarch?
It’s a lucky solution to two generational problems, at least in the eyes of Frank and Roberta, Mamie’s anxious son and daughter-in-law, who hope that some good will come from this arrangement for both Frank’s cantankerous mother and the couple’s aimless gadabout son.
Over time, Mamie and Julian’s forced togetherness morphs into a pleasant sanctuary. Their combined daily routine is punctuated by errands that need running and a dog that needs walking and martinis that need mixing. But after that, what to do between lunch and dinner, dinner and bedtime? With the outside world shut down, and with Mamie not getting any younger, she announces to Julian that there’s no time like the present to share some details of her wondrous life story, and it’d be a good thing if he sat up and took notes.
The fact that Julian is a willing inheritor of his grandmother’s stories is a blessing, because oh, the stories Mamie has to tell! From the proud Austrian family history learned at her grandfather’s knee, to the bits and pieces of current events she picked up while her parents attempted to shield her from the regime change outside their front door, to the inhumanity she witnessed firsthand despite her parents’ protective intentions, young Mamie took everything in. Lucky for Julian, his grandmother’s early memories are vivid, and her powers of recollection, 80-plus years hence, remain astute.
As for her reminiscences of the family’s early days in California, Mamie realized from the start that she had an advantage over her parents and grandfather in their new homeland; she picked up English quickly at school and assimilated into American culture with ease. And as always, she grasped a great deal by simply paying attention.
Mamie understood that the European Film Fund was her family’s lifeline and foothold in the L.A. entertainment world, what with her mother being a writer and her father a composer. And since gatherings of fellow creative refugees at the homes of their California sponsors formed a tight-knit community, Mamie had plenty of opportunities to tag along and listen closely to the actors, writers, and musicians, as well as to the sponsors who did for their family what most people (and nearly all governments) were unwilling to do: lend a hand, provide a job, locate some housing, and keep a wave of European Jewish refugee families afloat.
At times, young Mamie lived a veritable Forrest Gump life, where just showing up often got you in conversation with a Who’s Who of immigrant celebrities. From a chance encounter with a reclusive actress who gifted the 11-year-old with the puppy she so yearned for, to tennis lessons and arguments with a world-famous musician about the notes the piano leaves in the cracks, she was a full participant who took advantage of the remarkable world she inhabited.
The stories Mamie shares with Julian flow across the pages from multiple perspectives. Sometimes we hear them straight from her mouth, sometimes we listen to Julian recounting them to a fellow dogwalker; here, we’re privy to the wannabe writer/actor seeking out which bits of his grandmother’s tales might particularly resonate with his new acquaintance. Occasionally, readers find themselves inside Julian’s head, hearing him thinking about what Mamie is telling him just as he’s comparing his youthful situation with hers. (Spoiler alert: There’s no comparison.)
Occasionally, we get the fits and starts of three generations attempting to communicate via family Zoom sessions. (Remember those?) And every now and then, like gifts from the omniscient author, the version of a story Mamie gives Julian is upended by the one we’re made privy to in her unspoken musings. It’s a patchwork of sources and delivery methods that reflects the crazy-quilt nature of Mamie’s stories and the Künstlers’ collective lives — all connected, but not entirely flushed out, some pieces and patches kept in Mamie’s pocket, perhaps to be shared some other day, but more than likely not.
Künstlers in Paradise is a multifaceted gem that describes one family’s remarkable journey from a home that was a paradise until it wasn’t, to a place that has always pretended to be a paradise — and which, under the circumstances then and now, may be close enough.
Kristin Macomber is a writer in Cambridge, MA.