Cathleen Schine has brought her gentle, deft touch and sparkling, often sardonic wit to warm and moving novels of family, love, and identity from “The Three Weissmanns of Westport” to “Fin and Lady.” Fairy-tale elements, literary references, and mythological allusions are rife in Schine’s work, but she wears her erudition lightly and blends romance and realism in a distinctively readable style.
Schine’s new novel, “Kunstlers In Paradise,” begins in characteristic fashion: “There was a time when the family Kunstler lived in the fairy-tale city of Vienna. Circumstances transformed that fairy tale into a nightmare, and in 1939 the Kunstlers found their way out of Vienna and into a new fairy tale: Los Angeles, California, United States of America.”
The Kunstlers are “told Los Angeles would be like the Mediterranean … a sea of many tales: of Homer and his Cyclops and Sirens and heroes and sheep.” Eleven-year-old Mamie accompanies her parents and grandfather, part of the wave of Jewish authors, musicians, and intellectuals fleeing Hitler, to begin what they imagine will be a life of adventure, temptation, magic, and epic grandeur in their new home.
“Kunstlers In Paradise” is not, however, a straightforward story of the emigree experience in 1940s Los Angeles. After a short first chapter describing Mamie and her family’s arrival and early days in California, the novel flashes forward to 2020, as Mamie, now 93 but still in fine fettle, awaits the arrival of her favorite grandson, Julian, who’s flying to Venice Beach from New York City for what they both believe will be a brief stay.
Julian is the child of Roberta and Frank Kunstler, who have been generally “easygoing parents” but have had it with “their obviously intelligent and even more obviously intellectually wayward son.” They are tired of his “useless hobbies” and what they consider his “serial monogamy of intellectual pursuits.” His girlfriend has dumped him, he’s lost his part-time job at a children’s bookstore, and his roommate has announced that he’s leaving their overpriced Brooklyn apartment to attend law school. His parents won’t cover the rent or fund his screenwriting dreams. They deliver a lecture “about responsibility and independence” and yell at him about his privilege; he castigates them for being “so bourgeois!”
A phone call from Mamie, who has suffered a hairline wrist fracture and needs someone to help around the house and drive her to medical appointments, interrupts the fracas and presents a momentary solution to what Julian considers “his disastrous Dickensian circumstances.” “Like [the witch in] Hansel and Gretel,” Mamie laughingly offers to “fatten … [Julian] up.” Frank and Roberta “marvel … at this almost miraculous phone call … [which] addressed two separate problems — Julian and Mamie — and solved them both.”
When Julian arrives in California he’s happy to see that everything in the house, which Mamie had bought decades ago, is just the same as it has always been. That comforting familiarity soon becomes even more important as the world is thrown into upheaval with the arrival of a global pandemic on US soil. Julian is stranded in Venice Beach, quarantining with Mamie, her stolid assistant/caretaker/cook, Agatha, and Prince Jan, her aging St. Bernard. The days take on a routine of walks with the dog, afternoon cocktails, dinners at 6 p.m., and storytelling.
California does indeed appear a paradise compared to the wrenching scenes of COVID’s carnage unfolding in New York City; both Mamie and Julian worry about their relatives in New York City and struggle with guilt about their relative safety and ease. Julian meets “a charming and attractive girl” on his dog walks and soon the two of them are flirtatiously conversing while wearing masks and keeping 6 feet apart.
Mamie is as sparky and vibrant as her flaming red hair, the kind of Auntie Mame relative all of us crave. She’s expansive and warm but rigorously unsentimental, a straight shooter who provides loads of “eccentric fun.” And she becomes a kind of Scheherazade for her receptive nephew, who takes notes on her fascinating tales of emigree life and considers turning them into a screenplay. Tennis lessons from Arnold Schoenberg, a friendship with Christopher Isherwood, and a clandestine romance with Greta Garbo come to vivid life in Mamie’s retelling.
Schine depicts the inner lives of Mamie and Julian equally deftly, and transitions effortlessly between their two perspectives. Awaiting Julian, Mamie thinks to herself that she “could not afford to appear either insane or pitiful.” Julian comes to see Mamie as not just a “funny, eccentric grandma” but also “a person of twists and turns and depths and heights and whole vistas of thoughts and ideas and desires and concerns he could only glimpse from afar.” Schine invests both with complexity, dignity, vulnerability, and full humanity. Literally and figuratively, they walk together, with Mamie “leaning comfortably on her grandson’s steady arm.”
“Kunstlers in Paradise” is a tender family story, but it is also a profound meditation on the nature and power of storytelling, inheritance, and legacy, the malleability and perdurability of memory. At one point, Mamie muses: “Perhaps that was why she’d begun telling him her stories now. Not just for his family history or to push away the boredom, not just to pass the time that clung to them like wet, heavy mud, but also to celebrate, to rejoice in what had been, and, just as important, more important, what had not been.” In its warmth and wisdom, Schine’s novel extends to us the “narrative comfort,” the “subversive … glimpse of joy,” and the “radical … hope” that Mamie and Julian find in their own connection.
KUNSTLERS IN PARADISE
By Cathleen Schine
Henry Holt, 272 pages, $27.99
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy” and “The Critic’s Daughter.”