• Review
By – January 27, 2020

In 1941, Peg­gy Guggen­heim, a wealthy art col­lec­tor and mem­ber of the famous fam­i­ly, put her col­lec­tion on a boat bound for New York; Guggen­heim and her fam­i­ly had been liv­ing in Paris and the Nazis were prepar­ing to invade. In spite of her promi­nent Jew­ish name, Guggen­heim was most con­cerned with the safe­ty of her art. The Lou­vre refused to shel­ter it, doubt­ing the val­ue of her Picas­sos, Ern­sts, and Dalis. So she put the art on a boat, and booked her­self, her teenage daugh­ter, Pegeen, and sev­er­al of the artists in her cir­cle on a plane to the Unit­ed States.

In Costale­gre, Court­ney Maum’s haunt­ing new nov­el, Guggenheim’s sto­ry is told through the eyes of her teenage daugh­ter, fic­tion­al­ized under the name Lara. Instead of New York, the group flees to the south­west Mex­i­can coastal jun­gle. Instead of focus­ing on Leono­ra Calaway’s exploits — the fic­tion­al­ized Guggen­heim — Maum explores how her Lara’s mother’s exces­sive drink­ing, affairs, and dis­mis­sive atti­tude toward impact her as the nov­el unfolds through diary entries.

It isn’t only Leono­ra whose behav­ior is enter­tain­ing in its eccen­tric­i­ty. The group of artists and writ­ers holed up in the family’s ram­shackle colo­nial man­sion schemes, fights, and takes up with one anoth­er. Ear­ly in the nov­el, they insist on fir­ing the house­hold staff; one man says it makes him self-con­scious about his art. Giv­en that none of them can cook a thing, this does­n’t go over well.

Through Lara’s nar­ra­tion of such inci­dents, we see the humor of the sit­u­a­tion. Lara is mature enough not to be tak­en in by the famous artists’ exploits and to have her own, rather prac­ti­cal, ideas about such mat­ters. She is the only one with the pres­ence of mind to attempt to learn Span­ish so she can speak with the staff and oth­er locals. But when it comes to art, she is as tak­en as any­one. A bud­ding artist her­self, Lara has learned such impor­tant lessons as good art must be strange” from the mod­ernists and post­mod­ernists around her. She under­stands that Kon­rad is deal­ing with immense trau­ma: he was sent to an ear­ly con­cen­tra­tion camp for being a Jew­ish artist until Leonara man­aged to get him out by mar­ry­ing him. But she doesn’t know how to talk to him or process what his expe­ri­ence means for her, a half-Jew­ish girl with a broth­er still in Europe (albeit Switzerland).

While the themes, entranc­ing scenes, and the deci­pher­ing the truth­ful ele­ments from the fic­tion­al­ized ones all make this book an engag­ing read, it is Lara’s voice that stick with you. Maum lov­ing­ly and gor­geous­ly cap­tures what it’s like to be a grow­ing teenag­er. Lara is both world­ly and naive, jad­ed and roman­tic. For every humor­ous, insight­ful take­down of her self-absorbed guests or her moth­er, she makes a list of what she likes (her hair) and dis­likes (war). Her crush on old­er neigh­bor Jack (a fic­tion­al­ized Bran­cusi) per­fect­ly cap­tures the angst and excite­ment of being fif­teen, no mat­ter the time, place, or world events.

There’s lit­tle chance of Lara’s crush amount­ing to any­thing and giv­en the age dif­fer­ence we wouldn’t want it to. But with­in it, Lara is final­ly seen — as a per­son and an artist; we have so much to root for in. Lara’s an enchant­i­ng nar­ra­tor and this lush, poet­ic nov­el does her justice.

Jessie Szalay’s writ­ing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Aspara­gus, The For­ward, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Trav­el­er, and as a notable in the Best Amer­i­can Essays of 2017. She lives in Salt Lake City where she teach­es writ­ing in a prison edu­ca­tion program.

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