The author’s note at the end of Courtney Maum’s Costalegre shares the inspiration for the novel. Though the details and many of the names have been altered for this book, the kernel of the story is the life of Peggy Guggenheim. In the late 1930s and during World War II, Guggenheim helped artists to escape from Europe and get set up in America. She bought thousands of dollars worth of art—especially art deemed as “degenerate” by the Third Reich. Costalegre doesn’t tell the story of the woman based on Guggenheim; rather the woman’s fifteen year-old daughter takes up the reins as narrator to show us what life is like living with a group of people who are all competing to create genuine Surrealist art.
Lara has always been treated like an accessory to her mother, Leonora Calaway’s, life. Leonora is so wealthy that price really is no object for her. She and Lara are used to crisscrossing Europe before they land in a mansion on Mexico’s southwest coast in 1937. They’re not alone. Mother and daughter are sharing the house with a group of painters and writers Leonora rescued from Europe. And, even though Leonora holds the purse strings, the artists are running to show. All of them want to produce the most powerful, most true works of Surrealist art and writing. While Lara watches, the artists withdraw to paint or write, experiment with all kinds of ideas, and bicker to the point of obnoxiousness.
If Leonora were narrating this story, there might be a lot more worry over the fate of artists left in Europe or gloating over being able rescue the few that are with her in Mexico. If one of the artists were narrating, we’d see more of the quest to create Surrealism. We get a bit of both of those but, because Lara is our narrator, what we get is primarily a story of loneliness. Lara is never her parents’ first consideration. At one point, she goes missing overnight and no one notices. All Lara wants is for someone to talk to her and pay attention to her. But everyone around her is too busy or too self-centered to bother with more than a brief conversation (really monologues with an audience). Before long, it was hard to me to wonder what the point of all this art these artists were creating. Are their creations worth more than taking time to be human and empathetic? It was also hard for me to see the artists as mostly frauds who don’t even understand what Surrealism is and what it’s supposed to do.
Costalegre is one of the most original takes on a very old story—alienated teenager seeks love—that I’ve ever read. I would recommend it for that originality alone, but only for readers who can cope with a heavy dose of honest loneliness. There were several points in this book when I wished I could have reached in to comfort Lara or take the piss out of the artists around her to make her see their absurdity. Because these characters are definitely absurd and are in desperate need of being yanked down a peg or two.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.