Künstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine


What a wonderful book this is. I loved it and when I finished it, I listened to a randomly chosen part again.

Julian, a young man who lives in Brooklyn, has hit some bumps in the road and his parents won’t subsidize him so he can continue to study Kurosawa’s body of work. His best option was to help with care for Maime, his 90-something grandmother in Santa Monica who had broken her wrist.

When she was a child, Maime, her parents, and her grandfather were saved from the Nazis in Vienna by an organization of movie professionals in LA. After the pandemic confined Julian and Maime to the house, Maime sets out to tell Julian the story of his ancestors, those frightening days in Vienna and how happy they were to have a safe haven in California. Maime is a wonderful storyteller, even a great mimic. She tells Julian that when he becomes homesick, he can come to her for fifteen minutes of her mimicking his parents.

She tells about their invitations to parties of the rich and famous of Hollywood. She tells about a party hosted by a woman she calls Mrs. Movie Mogul, whose house she described as a mosque-roofed, Tudor-doored hacienda. Her father and grandfather wore Austrian wool suits, Austrian wool sweaters and thick wool socks, the other men light suits and silk shirts. Her stories are filled with actual figures of the time.

Her (fictitious) grandfather spends time with Irving Tabor, a Black man who was an important figure in the creation of Venice. They sat on a bench together, one speaking in English, the other in German, with occasion help from the young Maime, until Tabor was told he was not allowed to be in that area. (You can read about Irving Tabor here.)

When her father began teaching her to play the piano, she objected to the arbitrary choices (who said what middle C is, she demanded to know) and was concerned about all the sounds between the C and the note next to it that were being neglected. She later voiced this concern to Arnold Schoenberg who taught her to play tennis. His creation of the 12-tone technique was not a solution for her concerns, but it was acknowledgement of them. Playing the violin instead of the piano also was a help.

Maime was given a dog, a Saint Bernard, by Greta Garbo who she met on the beach not long after they arrived in California. Years later Maime encountered her again and describes their short-lived but intense love affair.

Maime was good company in hard times, especially for the imperfectly educated Julian. He loved their time together, became accustomed to the music of Schoenberg, and even acquired a taste for martinis. Along with the appealing Maime are many brief characterizations of family members coping with a pandemic. Maime speaks movingly of the pain of those who came to paradise in the 1930s, having lost family members, and so much else in their lives.

Cathleen Schine, Künstlers in Paradise, Henry Holt and Company, 2023, 259 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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