Time is a funny thing. The year 2020 — those months of confinement, fear, frustration and isolation — feels as if it happened ages ago and simultaneously as though we lived through it just last week.
Mamie Künstler, one of the protagonists in Cathleen Schine's delightful new novel, "Künstlers in Paradise," understands this phenomenon all too well. She should: She's 93. "Time comes and goes too easily," she tells her aimless grandson Julian, who has left his mess of a life in New York to visit her in California. "If you don't pay attention, ninety years have passed by and left you behind."
Conventional wisdom, perhaps, but Julian, 24, underemployed and overly self-obsessed, is in desperate need of insight. His older married sister rolls her eyes at him, and even his grandmother admits he's annoying. He has lost his job, his roommate and his girlfriend, and when the global pandemic unfolds during his trip west, he finds himself stuck with Mamie, her aged St. Bernard and her stoic housekeeper Agatha.
But 2020 unleashes a loquacity in Mamie, reminding her of her own year of isolation in Vienna before the war, when her Jewish family stayed home to avoid violent Nazi mobs. She begins telling Julian stories about her parents and grandfather, who came to America in 1939. The Künstlers found sanctuary among high-profile Hollywood émigrés, including composer Arnold Schoenberg, writer Christopher Isherwood and — scandalous! — film star Greta Garbo.
As months of isolation wear on, Julian wonders how his frivolous path fits into Künstler history. Is Los Angeles his paradise, too? Or does happiness lie elsewhere?
Author of "The Grammarians," "The Three Weissmans of Westport" and "They May Not Mean to But They Do," Schine is alert to family absurdities, and she peels back the layers of these Künstlers with tenderness and wit, exposing the gentle idiosyncrasies of them all. (Julian's liberal parents are far too excited about having a Black son-in-law, for example, and Julian writes off his lack of purpose with the idea that "there would be plenty of time to worry seriously in that future about which they were worrying now with so little urgency.")
Despite its knowing humor, "Künstlers in Paradise" is also an astute exploration of the difficulties of aging and the importance of storytelling, especially as we grow older. Stories of the past are important, because history is fond of repeating itself, and stories are where we discover common ground. Julian can't help but compare his year of isolation to his grandmother's, and they share the guilt that survivors often feel when they have escaped the unthinkable while others like them have not.
The only course of action, Schine reminds us, is to relish simple pleasures. A cocktail by the sea. An orange right off the tree. The crinkling eyes of a person you like smiling behind her mask. A good story. We may not know the future, but those we love can help anchor us to the best of the present.
Connie Ogle is a writer in Florida.
Künstlers in Paradise
By: Cathleen Schine.
Publisher: Holt, 272 pages, $27.99.