© Rogi André via Guggen­heim Venices Twitter

Although I was raised Epis­co­palian, the fact that I thought this reli­gion was pro­nounced Eppah-skopp-lee-an” until the age of nine should give you some sense of the fre­quen­cy and devo­tion with which my fam­i­ly attend­ed church. The occa­sion­al church-going was my mother’s influ­ence. My father was an athe­ist (to his Chris­t­ian mother’s hor­ror), and my moth­er was a mil­que­toast who believed that chil­dren should grow up with reli­gion most­ly because it seemed like all of her oth­er friends’ chil­dren were.

I came of age in the tony bed­room town of Green­wich, Con­necti­cut in the 1980s — a land where the entries were gat­ed and the refrig­er­a­tors were mul­ti­ple, as were the extra-mar­i­tal affairs. I have a Char­lie Brown fil­ter on the mem­o­ries of my child­hood: par­ents exist­ed in the form of cologne vapors and exhaust fumes from their Range Rovers. They weren’t phys­i­cal­ly there.

My par­ents were the first cou­ple in my mid­dle school to get divorced — trend set­ters, to be sure. Because my home life was crum­bling, I grav­i­tat­ed towards play­mates who appeared to have sta­bil­i­ty in the famil­ial depart­ment; my male best friend was a Swede whose fam­i­ly did unthink­ably quaint things like cross coun­try ski togeth­er after eat­ing buck­wheat pan­cakes; my female bestie was Argen­tinean, with more cousins than I could count. But it wasn’t until my first boyfriend, Evan, that I dis­cov­ered a por­tal to a world where par­ents and their off­spring were spir­i­tu­al­ly forced to stay togeth­er, or at least on Fri­day nights: Judaism.

Mys­te­ri­ous, unbreak­able, as strong as an under­tow, I was enthralled by the fact that Evan had a devo­tion to some­thing high­er than our night­ly phone calls: he was study­ing for his Bar Mitz­vah, a pur­suit that sound­ed as dif­fi­cult and as full of grace as a triple axel jump. He was one year old­er than me, and he had pri­or­i­ties.

Mys­te­ri­ous, unbreak­able, as strong as an under­tow, I was enthralled by the fact that Evan had a devo­tion to some­thing high­er than our night­ly phone calls: he was study­ing for his Bar Mitzvah.

Through­out my young adult­hood and into what will soon be my forty-first year, I’ve remained admi­ra­tive — and envi­ous — of my friends who find a sense of pur­pose in the reli­gion that their par­ents gave them. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true of my Jew­ish friends, who seem to have a hom­ing instinct that I wasn’t built with: the siren call to Shab­bat, to seder, to the respon­si­bil­i­ty to sit shi­va. I try to tem­per my attrac­tion to Judaism with dis­tance and respect — I under­stand that no mat­ter how many Passover seders I am gra­cious­ly includ­ed in, regard­less of how much I love the spongy give of gefilte fish against my eager tongue, the Jew­ish faith will nev­er be mine just because I admire it. This dis­tance feels appro­pri­ate to me. This dis­tance feels ordained.

But it was this same dis­tance that kept me from com­mit­ting to my third book, a nov­el I want­ed to pen from the fic­tion­al­ized point of view of Pegeen Vail, the Jew­ish art col­lec­tor and Peg­gy Guggenheim’s only daugh­ter. The sto­ry was going to be set in the pre-World War II years, when Peg­gy was help­ing A‑list artists and intel­lec­tu­als get out of Europe before Hitler could imprison them. What right did I have to inhab­it the bod­ies of a Jew­ish fam­i­ly? What right did I have to imag­ine what Jew­ish peo­ple would have felt like in the years before the holocaust?

I decid­ed to pro­ceed with my project when I real­ized how con­flict­ed Peg­gy Guggen­heim was about her own reli­gion. Although she was raised in the elite Jew­ish soci­ety of uptown Man­hat­tan — her mater­nal grand­fa­ther was pres­i­dent of the Tem­ple Emanu-El syn­a­gogue, and Fri­day night Shab­bat din­ners took place at a pop­u­lar hotel — Peg­gy was eager to get out from under her family’s thumb. It’s text­book teenage­hood to start the lib­er­a­tion process by dat­ing peo­ple your par­ents don’t approve of. Peggy’s offen­sive fea­tured scores of sub­par suit­ors who would lat­er turn into hus­bands: not a sin­gle one of them Jew­ish. She would swap the offi­cious Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of uptown Man­hat­tan for bohemi­an Paris, where she began col­lect­ing art scan­dalous enough to fur­ther alien­ate her from her fam­i­ly in New York.

Dur­ing the research phase for COSTALE­GRE, it proved excep­tion­al­ly dif­fi­cult to unearth Peggy’s feel­ings about her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. In her mem­oir, Out of this Cen­tu­ry, she quips that it was rather sil­ly to be build­ing a muse­um in Paris as Ger­man tanks were rolling in, and she com­ments only on the worth and beau­ty of the art that she was try­ing to get out of the coun­try, not on the fact that she had to get her­self, these artists, and their art out because a mad­man want­ed her brethren dead.

Oth­er people’s writ­ings on Peggy’s rela­tion­ship to Judaism proved even more frus­trat­ing, with some études com­ing across as down­right anti­se­mit­ic. There are scores of essays com­mem­o­rat­ing Peggy’s pecu­liar breed of avarice, along with pon­tif­i­ca­tion about her bois­ter­ous nose. It was in one of these sedi­tious rec­ol­lec­tions that my sym­pa­thy for Peg­gy Guggen­heim was cement­ed. In Francine Pose’s The Shock of the Mod­ern the author writes of host­ess Peg­gy: Years lat­er, friends would com­plain that, at her par­ties in Man­hat­tan, she served only pota­to chips and cheap whiskey that she secret­ly decant­ed into emp­ty bot­tles of sin­gle malt.” Why, this was a typ­i­cal WASP move! Cheap liquor and stale Rip­ple Chips were Connecticut’s state food! And for God’s sake, could no one con­jec­ture that per­haps Peg­gy Guggen­heim had a wor­thi­er des­ig­na­tion for her inher­i­tance than hors d’oeuvres? It was well known (and the ignit­er of much gos­sip) that Peg­gy was one of the least wealthy Guggen­heims. So what if she scrimped on snack food in order to pur­chase art? Shouldn’t that be a point of pride, regard­ing her legacy?

So what if she scrimped on snack food in order to pur­chase art? Shouldn’t that be a point of pride, regard­ing her legacy?

A fic­tion­al­ized Pegeen, not Peg­gy, is the nar­ra­tor of my nov­el, so I was keen on under­stand­ing the extent to which Peg­gy passed down the birthright of reli­gion to her only daugh­ter. This was an excit­ing line of inquiry for me, but it proved a short one. It was all Peg­gy could do to remem­ber her off­spring with the cut­lery and linens when it came time to pack up a sum­mer house: the spir­i­tu­al edu­ca­tion of her chil­dren proved beyond her. Peg­gy Guggen­heim was uncom­fort­able as a socialite, uncom­fort­able as a Jew, uncom­fort­able as a moth­er, and her daugh­ter was the inher­i­tor of these vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, exis­ten­tial conun­drums that Pegeen ulti­mate­ly couldn’t solve. On a vis­it to Paris recent­ly, I went to the ver­dant ceme­tery Père Lachaise, intent on find­ing Pegeen’s grave. It took hours: she wasn’t on the gratis hand­out of notable dead peo­ple, but I final­ly found her in her pater­nal grandfather’s mau­soleum: the fam­i­ly VAIL. As for Peg­gy Guggen­heim, she is interred in the gar­den of her Venice palaz­zo, along­side her beloved dogs.

If Peg­gy Guggen­heim had kept prac­tic­ing her reli­gion, would her fam­i­ly have stayed togeth­er? Would her daugh­ter have lived longer? Would she have mar­ried once, and dal­lied less? Prob­a­bly not, that’s just me pro­ject­ing my child­ish wish­es for secu­ri­ty on a fam­i­ly that wasn’t mine. How Jew­ish was Peg­gy Guggen­heim, was a ques­tion I grap­pled with through­out the writ­ing of COSTALE­GRE. Not Jew­ish enough?

I was faced with a Peg­gy Guggen­heim who was try­ing, in some sense, to escape her reli­gion, and the weight of all it meant.

When it came time to name my matri­arch, I had to wres­tle this ques­tion again. Would I give Lara’s moth­er, fic­tion­al­ized as Leono­ra, a tra­di­tion­al­ly Jew­ish sur­name? But COSTALE­GRE takes place in 1937, and to me — at least in my research — I was faced with a Peg­gy Guggen­heim who was try­ing, in some sense, to escape her reli­gion, and the weight of all it meant. When all is said and done, COSTALE­GRE is about a daugh­ter yearn­ing for her mother’s time and love. Accord­ing­ly, I gave my fic­tion­al pair­ing a sur­name that means belong­ing to a place,” which felt respect­ful of the Peg­gy Guggen­heim I came to care for in my research — a woman who want­ed des­per­ate­ly to belong to some­thing out­side of her own fam­i­ly, a woman who under­stood ado­ra­tion more eas­i­ly than love.

COURT­NEY MAUM is the author of the nov­els Costale­greTouch, I Am Hav­ing So Much Fun Here With­out You, and the hand­book Before and After the Book Deal: A writer’s guide to fin­ish­ing, pub­lish­ing, pro­mot­ing, and sur­viv­ing your first book, forth­com­ing from Cat­a­pult. Her writ­ing has been wide­ly pub­lished in such out­lets as the New York TimesO, the Oprah Mag­a­zine; and Poets & Writ­ers. She is the founder of the learn­ing col­lab­o­ra­tive, The Cab­ins, and she also runs a ser­vice called The Query Doula” where she helps writ­ers pre­pare their man­u­scripts and query let­ters for an agent’s eyes.