Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Costalegre ~ Courtney Maum

Costalegre by [Maum, Courtney]

I reviewed Costalegre by Courtney Maum as I turned the last page when it was still fresh on my mind a couple months ago, and I'm grateful to the author and publisher for an early read. I will tell you that this is not a book I would normally choose to read; but after reading it I am again so impressed with the titles coming from Tin House lately. I loved A Key to Treehouse Living (Elliot Reed) last year and now this beautiful and strange novel, Costalegre

Based loosely on the lives of Peggy Guggenheim, her daughter Pegeen, and the surrealist art movement that Peggy supported during WWII by rescuing numerous artist and artwork from "Schlechty" (the nickname for Adolf Hitler), the author has chosen to place all these characters in the jungles of Mexico instead of the "jungle" of New York. 

Costalegre is a slim novel narrated in journal entries by 14 year old Lara, who finds herself in a strange land with even stranger people, and most tragic of all, a mother, Leonora, who is so caught up in the "art" of her guests that she ignores her daughter and leaves her entirely to her own devices. 

Without a tutor to educate her, Lara is learning about life from the kaleidoscopic world around her, with her only friends being the neglectful, narcissistic artists who struggle to "work" with few supplies, food, or inspiration. Since her father and brother stayed behind in Switzerland to wait out the war, Lara is truly on her own; and her only real pleasure is attempting to draw and paint herself, which the reader gradually realizes is her attempt to gain attention from the self-obsessed adults orbiting her life.

The theme of "disappearing" resonates in this novel: horses, a goat, the servants, and finally some of the artists themselves disappear, too. Lara feels invisible, and when she is thrown from a horse and gone for a night, no one realizes she was even gone - she may have well disappeared herself.

When an older male artist, who has lived in Costalegre full time since escaping Germany, expresses dismay that Lara is living in such circumstances, is it any surprise that she latches onto the one person in her world who seems to care about her?

The novel ends rather suddenly, and at first I was disappointed that there wasn't more closure to the story. But upon reflection, I realized that I was feeling so much like Lara, having lived with her voice all day as I read: there is no closure for her in Costalegre. She knows not what the future holds for her, and when anything will get any better. 

She ends with the hope that the ship that her mother commissioned with all the art from Germany will sink, so "there'd be nothing left to fawn over and boast about and move around the world for and maybe she [Leonora] would be emptied enough to finally mother me."

Getting to know Lara has been beautiful and sad and worthy. Costalegre is a short novel with a much larger story than its length suggests, and the emotional impact will linger. Really well done.

Thanks to Tin House Books and W.W. Norton Library Marketing for the advanced readers' copy.

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