Review: Künstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine


Thank you to Netgalley for a copy of the audio version of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My Interest

I admit it–the cover grabbed my attention! Of course the story grabbed me, too. Escaping Nazi Vienna to Venice, California and do ordinary jobs in places like Hollywood? Why not? And, having recently read Maame, why not read a story of a “Mamie”?

The Story

“One’s trauma becomes banal when trotted out too many times.”

The Künstlers family were helped by a committee of Hollywood moguls and employees to escape Vienna. Mamie, the daughter, was a child and so did not always notice the threats to their safety. Julian, her grandson, was a “failure to launch”–an upper-middle class young man with an education and parents with a secure life near the park in NYC who can’t seem to motivate himself to get a real, adult life with a job. Just before COVID hits, Julian is sent by the family to check on his grandmother out in California. Covid hits and Julian is stuck with his Grandmother, Mamie, her platonic companion Agatha, and an aging Saint Bernard. During their isolation, Mamie tells Julian a lot of stories about her childhood and family. Julian, a wanna be writer, takes notes and shares the stories with a young woman, Sophie, whom he meets out walking the St. Bernard .They walk their dogs “together” masked and on opposite sides of the street, talking all the time. As Mamie enlightens Julian, she not only fills gaps in his formal education, but also in his knowledge of his family and of the society they have inhabited. Julian finds confidence and begins to act more like an adult.

My Thoughts

Marked as “Humorous Literary Fiction” by Amazon, I imagine the review saying “nearly hurt myself laughing” was a plant from a friend or the publisher. There is humor in here–mostly provided by Agatha. (In the audio, Agatha was voiced like the announcer in the old Wendy’s “Where’s the beef” commercial with the Soviet woman modeling “fashions”). This is a novel in which politics belongs, but even then it got old–and I’m a liberal. I also thought Mamie got boring in certain points of the story–like filling a space with reading the encyclopedia. A little more pruning would have helped. Overall, I enjoyed this book. I got tired of the audio book narrator who tried too hard to make the children’s voices precious. I hate precious.

I thought of Julian Fellowes saying he didn’t want Downton Abbey being one of those shows where ‘oh, look! here comes Lloyd George.’ For that is what kept happening. Instead of politicians, it was a famous actress, various writers, composers and musicians. Was it believable–YES! That was the community that sponsored the family. But, one scene, with the “Great One” made me roll my eyes and debate dnf-ing the book. It was a dilemma for me–knowing it was believable but still finding parts of it to be tedious. A little can go a long way. A lot can steamroller a story and the “Great One” did that for me. I didn’t find it all poignant.

I did LOVE, love, love the “jingling tray!” That was what Mamie and Agatha had to look forward to each day–the cocktail hour–“HOURS”as Julian was corrected to say Adult Mamie, Julian, and Agatha were real to me. I loved Julian’s romance, too.

As I said, politics belonged in this book. I am not a Trump fan at all, but even I get sick of it. No matter, the author did come up with one image that made me stop and think. I’m sharing this knowing some reading this will be angry–outraged even. Remember, it is just one person’s opinion in one novel that you do not have to read, ok? It is not my opinion–merely a thought from a book that intrigued me. Do not flame me.

“Trump is more like Stalin or perhaps Mao…the affect is like Hitler, …effect is quite different…..Genocide by virus…”

I took this quote down quickly on the side of the road so the punctuation may be off. I had to turn off the book and think about it. I have studied every major modern dictator before 1984 in extreme detail, yet, like most, I ignore Mao too often. Pol Pot–yes, Mao? Was he too big? It was such a fascinating idea that I toyed with it through my errands. This quote will stay with me as Trump continues to evade the legal consequences of his actions. I will think of this now when he is mentioned.

That quote and more are why I’m positive this will be one of NPR’s books of 2023. For me, it was a decent read. Great? No. Terrible? Of course not. A perfectly fine book.

My Verdict


Künstlers in Paradise by Cathleen Schine

I listened to the audio version

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