“Konrad told my mother Europe will go to war over bad watercolors,” writes Lara, a teen who records the conversations between her mother and Konrad Beck, Leonora’s new husband, married to rescue him from a Nazi internment camp. These interactions take place at Costalegre, the house in the Mexican jungle that benefactor Leonora provides to persecuted artists. Beck insists that jealousy of more talented artists has led to Hitler’s decrees against “degenerate” art.

Courtney Maum’s “Costalegre” is loosely based on the real-life stories of Peggy Guggenheim and daughter Pegeen. Peggy married Max Ernst, one of the giants of 20th-century surrealism, in order to save him from the camps. Maum’s novel imagines 14-year-old Lara’s journal, full of transcripts and observations of the “loonies” collected by her mother.

Her mother is oblivious to a daughter desperate to be noticed. Despite arranging for servants and a fully stocked house with as many amenities as can be provided in the jungle to her guests, Leonora “forgets” to appoint a tutor for her daughter. It leaves Lara with weeks of unconstructed daily hours that the teen fills with earnest attempts to learn Spanish so that she may converse with the same servants whose names her mother won’t bother to learn, or hours spent in the jungle trying to learn the names of the flora and fauna she encounters. She also records the interactions of the irascible personalities who resent the gilded cage that’s been offered to them as refuge from fascism.

When Jack, a neighbor and artist, appears on the scene, Lara tumbles into a painful crush. “It was like the air went yellow and I got a funny feeling in my stomach,” she writes, her prose already tinted by her visual rendering of emotional truth. As the gaggle of artists continue to throw insults at one another and collectively run down their hostess at every opportunity, Lara longs for conversations about the other things, especially events happening in Europe. But Leonora insists on “no talk of anything that we can’t be happy of.” And when her guests object, she invites them to go back to Europe where the “food and drink will be more … sparse.”

Leonora had hoped to fill her refuge with thankful guests who will keep her entertained and becomes enraged when they become ordinary folk frightened for loved ones left behind in the dark days of mid-20th-century history.

Maum’s coming-of-age novel among some of Europe’s elite is heartbreaking in its evocation of a teenage girl whose mother collects artists to save but who ignores the daughter struggling not to drown. Maum captures the language and the intense flux of adolescent lability. She does it so well that readers may feel they’ve intruded on something private.

 

Lorraine Berry has written for the Guardian, the Washington Post and many others on subjects ranging from grief to social justice. On Twitter @BerryFLW.

Costalegre
By: Courtney Maum.
Publisher: Tin House, 227 pages, $19.95.