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Review: Costalegre, by Courtney Maum
Tin House, 2019. 227 pp. $20

In 1937, Leonora Calaway gathers artists known as “degenerates” in Hitlerian judgment and spirits them to Costalegre, a (fictional) resort in the Mexican jungle. Her guests include the reigning Surrealists of Europe, whose work she champions (and often buys), and with whom she’s had love affairs, past or ongoing. The heat and insects are crushing, egos combust, and no conversation takes place without vicious backbiting. Leonora’s immune, so long as everyone does what she says; and since she’s paying, they usually do.

You can imagine, then, what this nest of vipers would feel like to Lara, Leonora’s unloved, unlooked-after fifteen-year-old daughter. Lara Calaway shows artistic talent and gets the chance to practice it, but what she wants most is to be seen by her mother, understood even a little, to be put somewhere she can grow and mature, which Costalegre isn’t.

Leonora’s closely based on Peggy Guggenheim, the wealthy collector who left her stamp on modern art, and who, in fact, protected artists from persecution while behaving abominably in most other respects. Her long-suffering daughter, Pegeen, supplied the model for Lara, and it’s her voice that tells this harrowing story, in diary entries.

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, as seen from the Grand Canal (courtesy G. Lanting via Wikimedia Commons)

And voice means everything here. I admire how Maum has crafted Lara’s — naïve yet painfully knowing, resigned yet yearning for what she can’t have. She refuses to be overawed by the “loonies,” as she calls her mother’s artist friends, so she perceives their arrogance, selfishness, greed, and lack of empathy for anyone else. Yet she so longs for something to happen, something interesting, that at first, she hopes for better, even as she has her doubts:

All the other loonies are coming on a boat, and I spent a lot of time scanning the ocean for them. For a pirate ship. That’s what they should be on, really, a lively pirate ship. Mum told me the artists would be held for ages at customs and that it was silly to look for them when I could play a game with the ones we already had, but it didn’t seem that far-fetched to imagine one of the Spaniards floating calmly on a canvas or flying on some swan.

But her angry pessimism lies just below the surface. “No one in this world cares about anyone but themselves, especially not these artists, the most famous, the most stupid, the worst in all the world.” She’s also often clear-eyed about Leonora, who “doesn’t know what to do with other women except try to dress like them.”

One of the artists, who doesn’t live in the house but keeps a small ranch where he also has his studio, may be Lara’s salvation, she hopes, someone with whom to have a genuine conversation. This potential connection drives the story and creates a surprising amount of tension, further proof that plot points aren’t necessarily what make you turn the pages. However, I dislike the way Maum enacts this hope of Lara’s, and therefore the resolution of the novel, which leaves me wanting more, as unsatisfied as Lara has been.

My other objection has to do with history. I don’t mind that Maum has brought her artists to Mexico instead of New York, where Guggenheim actually installed them, as the author notes in an afterword. I think that this novel benefits from an exotic, incomprehensible setting, parallel in Lara’s mind to the richness all around that she can’t touch, and which isn’t meant for her. Rather, what rings false is how the characters keep expecting war to break out in Europe any day; it’s too early for ominous predictions. The artists discuss the Anschluss, Hitler’s union between Germany and Austria, illegal by the treaty that ended the First World War, and though that’s frightening, it’s still only March 1938. The dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, for instance, hadn’t happened yet, though it would shortly.

You can readily understand why these artists had to leave Spain or Germany, but to have them expect that the shooting will begin any moment makes them either seers or paranoid, which undermines what they’ve said. Further, they offer no reasons except for their fears, which nobody doubts or demands an explanation for. Yet Maum is particular about the timing. I think it far more probable that these artists worry about what their native lands have become, and that they can’t go home again, maybe ever. War sounds too drastic, almost theatrical, which does them, and the narrative, no service.

Still, I enjoyed reading Costalegre, and if you like eccentric characters — loonies — you’ll have your fill here.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.