Inspired by a Real Mystery, This Novel Skewers the Art World


Admirers of Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut, “Olga Dies Dreaming,” will be pleased to encounter in Gonzalez’s follow-up novel, “Anita de Monte Laughs Last,” not one but two protagonists who echo the titular Olga’s best qualities. Like Olga, they are Latina women of vision and will, who emphatically refuse to be put in a corner. But where Olga inhabited the world of wedding planning, Gonzalez’s new heroes occupy overlapping arenas of the art world.

First is Anita de Monte, a Cuban-born artist emerging in New York City’s art scene in the 1980s. Anita hews so closely in both her biography and her work to the real-life conceptual artist (and the novel’s dedicatee) Ana Mendieta that there is virtually no space between them. Like Mendieta’s, Anita’s promising career is violently truncated by an early death — she somehow plummets out of a window one night in 1985 after scuffling with her famous sculptor husband. That widely revered artist, Jack Martin, is then accused of and acquitted of murder, just as Mendieta’s husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, was.

The seamless overlap between real life and fictional counterparts, and the faithful reproduction of such well-established facts, conveys the author’s intention to offer a crystal clear clé to this roman à clef. Anita’s story often feels like the novelization of one of the art world’s most notorious unsolved mysteries: Did this young and gifted artist accidentally fall? Did she suicidally jump (as was strongly implied of Mendieta by Andre’s lawyers and supporters)? Or was she pushed?

The second protagonist is Raquel Toro, a Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican art history undergraduate at Brown University in the late 1990s. For her senior thesis, Raquel is studying the subject of her (white, male) adviser’s own scholarly work: the world-famous artist Jack Martin. Raquel hopes for a career in museums and galleries, a realm that’s all but unreachable to a woman of color without trust funds. But that’s a concern for after graduation; Raquel’s more immediate task is to succeed in an Ivy League setting where she is branded an “affirmative action admit.” When she begins a relationship with a wealthy and entitled (white, male) artist she runs even further afoul of her classmates, the privileged “Art History Girls.” After she scores a coveted internship, the Art History Girls lure Raquel to their apartment and, in a scene too “Mean Girls” to feel entirely realistic, bully her into a confession: “Just admit that you are a talentless nobody who rode affirmative action into that spot.”

Both Anita and Raquel face obvious and comparable headwinds in the art world they strive to enter. At Anita’s first show, the (white, male) panelists, including Anita’s future husband, opine on whether the female-only gallery space they are sitting in should even exist. After her death, her work is thoroughly suppressed, and a little over a decade later, an equally ambitious Raquel will actually blame herself for having never heard of Anita. The two women also face a shared, timeless issue: Both succumb to infatuation with manipulative men.

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