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'Anita de Monte Laughs Last' is a complex dissection of art, gender and marriage

Flatiron Books

Anita de Monte Laughs Last is a fantastic riff on a recurring theme in film and life: Anatomy of a Fall. A Star Is Born. Ben and Jen. And of course, the twice married and twice divorced Liz and Dick. The common theme: when one star rises, another falters. And, when it's the woman's star eclipsing her husband's, trouble naturally follows.

This dynamic is terrifically drawn by Xochitl Gonzalez in Anita de Monte Laughs Last, as it explores relationships doomed by power imbalances. In 1998, Raquel Toro is a Puerto Rican, working class, first generation college student at Brown University, famously the most bohemian and reputationally liberal of Ivies, at least in the abstract. At first, she plans to follow in her advisor's footsteps and focus her thesis on a minimalist sculptor, who, according to the lore, inspired brutalist architecture. But once Raquel discovers the brilliant but forgotten Cuban-American conceptual artist Anita de Monte a little over a decade after her suspicious death, those plans disintegrate. The research helps fuel Raquel's own awakening.

Nearly two decades before Raquel's arrival in Providence, Anita de Monte was a charismatic Latinx artist on the cusp of breaking through in a very white, Eurocentric, and male-oriented New York art scene. She had a Guggenheim fellowship, a Rome Prize, and several of her pieces had been purchased by the Met. But she was often treated as though there was an invisible asterisk next to her name, that she was a token woman and a token minority and hadn't earned those honors. De Monte was also the lover and wife of the esteemed minimalist Jack Martin, the older, white male artist who was chauvinistic, competitive, and chronically unfaithful. Early on, a solo exhibit is grotesquely accompanied by a debate between two white men about whether the show had any merit. Her future husband was one of those debaters.

Anita and Jack's relationship suffers under the weight of dueling careers and egos. Jack tended to act up in demeaning ways when the spotlight strayed. And Anita acts out when she feels diminished. It's impressive how well Gonzalez gets into both of their heads. When it's Jack's turn to tell the story, he is breathtakingly unabashed about the primacy of his needs and wants, to the extent that he "blamed her for the other women." On one hand he knows, "It was immature of him to do, of course." Yet in his defense, "he'd always been very up-front about what he needed: companionship, emotional support. He was unaccustomed to a woman so intimate to his life not championing him. He didn't feel that his affairs were transgressions as much as logical outcomes to her absences."

At the same time, when Anita attends to Jack's ego, her work suffers, and for her that's unacceptable. Interestingly, while most of the novel is written in third person, Anita tells her story directly, in a fierce and lyrical voice. Looking back, Anita realizes that a seed of their unraveling was present from the start, and though she was loath to admit it, her ego intertwined with his fame and power. "Endings, and even beginnings, are tricky things to pinpoint...," she reflects. They may have begun, "When the seed was planted in my mind that he was a person of importance – long buried and then suddenly sprouted up when he validated my existence with attention and time." And still, tragically, "I would also have to consider that, actually, the beginning of the end was the very first time I ever chose Jack Martin over myself."

How the glamorous marriage, Anita, and her artistic reputation died at almost exactly the same time – her story forgotten while Jack's legend lived on – is the novel's animating center. Gonzalez complicates the artist versus artist motif with thorny questions of culture and race — what determines who gets to be remembered and who is left behind — while grounding that debate in the riveting mystery surrounding de Monte's death, possibly at the hand of her mercurial husband.

The novel addresses these issues through multiple points of view and two timelines. Along with Anita and Jack's doomed romance, Raquel's growth and relationships with the wealthy white men (boyfriend Nick Fitzsimmons and academic advisor John Temple) and privileged young women in her orbit a decade after Anita's death are conduits for exploring how art, identity and privilege intersect. Gonzalez's depiction of the racial and economic dynamics of Raquel's boastfully liberal yet starkly socially stratified Ivy League college is scalpel sharp and painfully accurate. In one scene, Raquel is cornered by her sort of frenemies, the wealthy "Art History Girl" clique. Resentful of "nobody" Raquel's fast rise and her high-status boyfriend, they grow incensed when Raquel gets a coveted summer internship at the Rhode Island School of Design. I searched my mind to evaluate whether that strangely powerful confrontation was too much for the setting. But if I'm being brutally honest, it's just scratching the surface of this particular backlash.

The questions the text raises are abundant: How much has really changed between men and women when it comes to money and success? Are art and marriage necessarily a zero sum game when two artists come together? How do relationships of all kinds between people of different racial and economic backgrounds change these equations? Is Anitas's husband a bad art friend? Or is Anita? The questions get more thorny as the book goes on.

Anita de Monte Laughs Last is one of a group of new novels examining gender, race and intimacy in the world of art and commerce. In the women's relationships especially, there are echoes of Kiley Reid'sCome and Get It, but here the clashes feel more real, possibly because they're inspired both by a true artworld tragedy and the author's experiences at Brown. And the novel works because Gonzalez approaches its questions through story and character, like a master portraitist, emphasizing granularity and precision. Recounting Anita's story in a nonlinear fashion, the mystery is constructed for maximum suspense, starting at the end of her life, dipping back through her marriage, and giving the narcissistic Jack a chance to speak for himself. The result is a story that moves around without ever losing focus.

Elegantly written and constructed, Gonzalez's second novel brilliantly surpasses the promise of her popular debut Olga Dies Dreaming. Where that novel sometimes strained under the weight of its ambitions, Anita de Monte Laughs Last is complex and cohesive, social criticism flowing organically from character and story. The novel is the best, most elusive combination: a thought-provoking and a brilliantly entertaining triumph.

A slow runner and fast reader, Carole V. Bell is a cultural critic and communication scholar focusing on media, politics and identity. You can find her on Twitter @BellCV.

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Carole V. Bell