4.5 stars, rounded upward. My thanks go to Net Galley, Henry Holt Publishers, and Macmillan Audio for the review copies. This magnificently quirky novel is for sale now.
Julian Kunstler is kind of a mess. He’s a twenty-something New Yorker whose girlfriend has just dumped him. He has no job, and he doesn’t want one; at least, not the low-paying, entry-level variety of jobs for which he is qualified. He takes himself home to his parents who have been paying his way, confident that they will understand his plight and increase his allowance. Instead, he hits a wall. What are your plans for the future, Julian? (None.) What do you plan to do for money? (Get it from you.) Just as a dramatic situation has begun to unfold, they hear from his 93 year old grandmother, Mamie, who lives in Los Angeles. She wants him to come to stay with her awhile; she needs assistance. He’s not so sure that he wants to go, but when his parents insist, he gets on that plane. Once there, the pandemic strikes, and he is trapped in lockdown with his grandmother and her elderly companion, Agatha.
Mamie has always been fond of Julian, and although she does need a driver for doctor appointments and the like, what she wants, more than anything, is to tell her life story. Most of it, anyway. It begins in Austria, as Jewish artists like her father, a successful composer, are being pushed out of public life by the Nazis. (Here, I emit a small moan; I am heartily sick of Holocaust stories. Happily, we don’t stay there long, and this story is worth it.) She goes on to describe the shock she experiences in suddenly being transplanted into a completely different climate, language, and culture, and much of Mamie’s story is droll. And Julian, who never would have sat still for these tales had they come from his parents, listens. At first, he listens impatiently, assisted by Mamie’s generous liquor collection. As time goes on, he begins to listen with greater patience and understanding. And by the end of a year’s time, he listens with genuine interest. His own exile from New York is pale, after all, in comparison to the exile his predecessors endured.
The most dynamic character is, of course, Julian, but through Mamie’s stories, we see how life has already changed her. Agatha is enigmatic until the book is nearly over, and I love what Cline does with her, too.
If I were to change one thing, I would edit down the material about the genius composer friend that emigrates from Austria and is close to the family. This reviewer was a music major once upon a time, and if this part of the narrative is a bit much for me, then probably many others will feel the same. Of course, if the reader comes to the book with a deep interest in Schoenberg, then it may prove quite satisfying.
I am fortunate to have access to both the digital print galley and the audio version, and reader Jesse Vilinsky is hands down the funniest, most skillful voice actor I have ever had the pleasure to hear. Cline’s book is very good, but in the hands of Vilinsky, it is infinitely better. Her interpretations of Mamie and Julian are spot on, hilarious at times, moving at others. The way she voices Agatha is absolute comic genius!
For those that love quirky humor and historical fiction, this book is highly recommended.