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by Cathleen Schine

Pub Date: March 14th, 2023
ISBN: 9781250805904
Publisher: Henry Holt

The plight of Jewish intellectuals evicted from their homes by Hitler meets the plight of Los Angeles families trapped in their homes by the pandemic.

“ ‘I do not believe in life after death,’ Mamie said. ‘I sometimes have trouble believing in life before death: it is all so improbable.’ ” With her usual bounty of witticisms and aperçus, Schine takes on the recent plague year from the perspectives of two protagonists. Mamie Künstler is a 93-year-old violinist who came to Los Angeles from Vienna in 1939 with her parents, Austrian Jews who became fixtures in the Hollywood émigré community. Eighty-some years later, Mamie lives in a bungalow in Venice with her long-time companion, Agatha, “a person of indeterminate age and indeterminate nationality whose job description was both indeterminate and, as far as Julian could tell, all-encompassing.” Julian is Mamie's grandson, age 24. When we meet him, he is lolling around New York pursuing esoteric hobbies, such as transcribing the screenplays of Kurosawa. Desperate to jump-start his life, Julian’s parents send him to the West Coast to help Mamie, who has recently fractured her wrist, and Agatha, whose driver’s license has been suspended. Not long after Julian arrives, he’s trapped by lockdown. “I’m terrified, pissed off, and bored,” he tells his grandmother. “That is a perfect description of my childhood, Julian. Uncanny.” As the relationship between the two develops, as the rhythms of quarantine take over, including the ubiquitous “jingling tray” of the cocktail hour(s), Mamie begins to share the stories of her youth, which feature well-known real people such as Otto Preminger, Arnold Schoenberg, and, most importantly, Greta Garbo. Meanwhile, Julian is awarded a pandemic romance, allowing Schine to revisit the unpleasant social rituals of 2020 and ’21 with characteristic wryness: “With the languorous timing of a stripper, Sophie detached one elastic from one ear, the other elastic from the other ear. She batted her eyelashes at him, then slowly, slowly lowered the mask as if it were a veil, an exotic veil.”

Dreamy, drifty, and droll, studded with lush botanical description and historical gems. Schine’s many fans will enjoy.