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.