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Anita de Monte Laughs Last


Anita de Monte Laughs Last

New York Times bestselling author Xochitl Gonzalez, whose prize-winning debut, OLGA DIES DREAMING, was named a “Best Book of the Year” many times over, makes a triumphant, scintillating return with ANITA DE MONTE LAUGHS LAST. This urgent call to action and reckoning not only affirms the power of art, but confronts its startling lack of diversity, both in galleries and museums and in academia.

In the 1980s, artist Anita de Monte was a Cuban-born refugee who made her own name in New York before marrying a famous sculptor, Jack Martin. The coupling of artists can be rocky at best. Jack is a proud pot-stirrer whose controversial opinions are as well-known as his lauded artwork. With his constantly putting Anita down or demeaning her identity as a Latina woman, it’s easy to see why their passion plays out not just in the bedroom, but in verbal spars and barbs as well. Even more surprising is the night that Anita falls or is pushed out of a window, plummeting to her death. Jack, meanwhile, is accused and then acquitted of her murder. He’s free to continue boasting and bragging about his own derivative work in perpetuity, even as the cause of his wife’s death is left unsolved.

Thirteen years later, not much has changed for Latina women in the arts. White men still snag the best galleries and lavish museum openings, and they still populate most of the art textbooks and curriculums, even at prestigious liberal arts colleges like Brown University. It is here where we meet Raquel Toro, a Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican art history student working on her thesis. Under the watchful, occasionally demeaning eye of her (you guessed it, white and male) professor, John Temple, Raquel has chosen to study the works of Jack Martin --- not necessarily because she feels drawn to him, but because she knows he is a “safe” subject who will impress Temple.

"ANITA DE MONTE LAUGHS LAST is a gorgeous, ponderous and bitingly sharp takedown of the art world and its hypocrisies.... Peppered with infuriating microaggressions, acts of white saviorism and pure white supremacy, this book is a scathing takedown of white exceptionalism."

As one of the few students of color on Brown’s campus, Raquel is too familiar with the need for balance: of being just Latina enough to make her peers feel worldly, but not so Latina that they feel uncomfortable in their whiteness; of championing other women and Black and Latine artists, but not so much that she is seen as a rebel or a disturbance. Her primary goal is to graduate and pursue a career in museums, and if compromise is what it takes, she can acquiesce.

In addition to the backing of her faculty supervisor, Temple, Raquel has landed a highly esteemed internship under Belinda Kim, an acclaimed Asian American feminist curator who is the polar opposite of Raquel’s advisor. While Temple calls himself a “traditionalist” who believes that identity politics and affirmative action dictate too much of art’s focus, Kim is against “art for art’s sake” and encourages Raquel to dig deeper, prompting her discovery of the story of Jack’s wife and her mysterious death.

It’s worth mentioning now that both Jack and Anita are based on the true story of the death of artist Ana Mendieta. While Anita’s rise to fame and fall to death mirror Ana’s almost point for point, Gonzalez takes a strong stance here about the circumstances of her death. She gives Ana a voice through Anita, allowing the specter of her passing --- and all of that lost potential --- to intertwine with Raquel’s study of the underappreciated artist’s life.

But just as Raquel is beginning her thesis, she becomes entangled with Nick Fitzsimmons. Nick is a wunderkind senior who already has exhibited and sold his art to famous museums and collectors. His warmth and ability to poke fun at his own privilege quickly endear him to Raquel. In a world of peers who accuse her of being an “affirmative action admit,” Nick’s willingness to confront his own whiteness and consider her both as an artist and as a Latina artist (none of that “I don’t see race” nonsense here!) is refreshing and intoxicating.

However, as Gonzalez demonstrates in chapters written in Anita’s perspective, powerful white men are always happy to champion those they perceive as “less than,” “other” or “exotic” --- at least until the divide between them shrinks and the competition heats up. Raquel is aware that her connection to Nick can open new doors and worlds for her and her art, but it is not until their relationship starts to closely, dangerously mimic that of Anita and Jack that it becomes apparent just how little has changed, in both society at large and the art world in particular.

With the voice of Anita adding a dash of magical realism to the narrative, and the romantic relationships and career trajectories of both Raquel and Anita creeping dangerously close to the same conclusion, Raquel realizes just how much of her history, her culture and her potential have been relegated from the mainstream and cast into obscurity. And like Gonzalez’s Olga of OLGA DIES DREAMING, Raquel is not quite ready to be sidelined.

ANITA DE MONTE LAUGHS LAST is a gorgeous, ponderous and bitingly sharp takedown of the art world and its hypocrisies. For an industry full of diversity and beauty, Gonzalez reminds her readers just how white it and other industries like it remain, and how easily mold-breakers like Anita (Ana) and Raquel have been pushed aside. Peppered with infuriating microaggressions, acts of white saviorism and pure white supremacy, this book is a scathing takedown of white exceptionalism.

Gonzalez is unflinching and uncompromising in her portrayals of men like Jack, John and Nick, who claim to be the “good ones” but are often crueler in their takedowns of successful Latina women than even the most racist of their peers. But in her prose, which is crystalline and sharp, expertly restrained and wildly inventive, she transmutes the rage that these men and their bigoted acts inspire, turning it into something far more powerful: joy. The joy of finding and championing oneself and, of course, the joy that comes with knowing that you are ready to bust down any door, break any glass ceiling and claim the ferocious, vital energy of creation for yourself.

There are a lot of heartaches and difficult confrontations here, but the sheer dynamism and energy of fighting with, alongside and for the women Gonzalez introduces make those painful realizations educational, inspiring and, above all, galvanizing.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 8, 2024

Anita de Monte Laughs Last
by Xochitl Gonzalez

  • Publication Date: March 5, 2024
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250786215
  • ISBN-13: 9781250786210