There are three things I love most in a book, and Courtney Maum’s “Costalegre” hits them all. To start, it’s an epistolary novel, written in diary format. I find the letter writing format challenging as a writer, but delightfully intimate as a reader. It’s difficult to be both in a character’s head (in this case a teenage girl) and to move the story forward. Maum is talented enough to do just that.
“Costalegre” is full of wonder and loneliness, told from the point of view of rich socialite Leonora’s daughter, Lara, who wants nothing more than to be seen. It is in many ways a coming-of-age novel, but it is so much more than that.
It’s also historical fiction, which is my favorite kind of fiction. “Costalegre” is based on the life of Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen. The year is 1937, and the fictional Leonora Callaway loads up a boat full of artists and artwork and flees to Mexico in order to avoid Hitler. They are safe, but they are trapped, too, both by their feelings of survivor guilt and by their actual location. They can’t leave Leonora’s compound unless they want to risk death in the jungle, which some of them do.
My third favorite thing in a novel is anything set in the jungle. “Costalegre” put me in mind of Anne Patchett’s “State of Wonder” and Lily King’s “Euphoria”. The setting is both lush and dangerous, opulent and terrible. I love when books create a physical world that I can nearly touch and hear and smell—not just “see.”
Maum, whose previous novels include “I Am Having So Much Fun Here without You” and “Touch”, are worth reading if you haven’t already.