By Courtney Maum
Courtney Maum’s third novel (after “I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You” and “Touch”) is narrated by a 15-year-old girl who is both enchanted and diminished by her charismatic mother, an American heiress who collects European art — and the artists themselves — during the rise of fascism in the late ’30s. The story may sound familiar, as this mother and daughter are inspired by historical figures: Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen.
Biography and fiction have a co-dependent, fraught relationship. Hilary Mantel hews as closely as possible to the known truth, while other writers, from Shakespeare to Doctorow, have played more lightly with the genders and geographies of their sources. In any novel based on real people who have been altered not-quite-beyond recognition, it can be hard to discern fact from fiction, and to know what liberties the author has taken. Guggenheim’s story is fascinating: In her early 20s, after her father went down with the Titanic, she moved from her native New York City to Paris, where she hung out in Montparnasse, posed for Man Ray, and befriended Duchamp and Brancusi, whose work she bought and promoted. A self-proclaimed “art addict,” Guggenheim was rumored to have “slept with 1,000 men,” including Samuel Beckett. She wore Poiret gowns, opened galleries, lent Djuna Barnes the summerhouse where she wrote “Nightwood.” Pegeen, Guggenheim’s daughter with her first husband, Laurence Vail, became a painter, and died of an overdose at 41.
Maum’s delightful book focuses on the period of Guggenheim’s life when impending war meant she had to get her art, and artists, out of Europe. (The Louvre refused to shelter her underappreciated collection of Cubist and Surrealist art during the Nazi occupation, while agreeing to store other gallerists’ Impressionist paintings.) The novel is written as a diary kept by Lara, whose mother, the heiress Leonora Calaway, brings her cohort of European artists to the Mexican jungle, where they nervously await the boat carrying their work and a grand piano, and taunt their patroness into letting go of the help: “He doesn’t believe in having servants,” Lara observes of one artist. “Says it makes him self-conscious about his art.” Maum devotes her attention to the overshadowed daughter, who develops a crush on Jack, a reclusive artist modeled after Brancusi, and makes line drawings of his bird sculptures in her diary.