Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzales: book review

Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzales

Overview: Anita de Monte was shoved out the window by her husband and fellow artist Jack Martin. But he got acquitted and scrubbed the story and Anita from the legacy of his work. Though dead, Anita will not sit quietly by and let that happen. While Anita dies in 1985, it isn't until 1998 that Anita truly gets an opening to correct her legacy when Raquel starts working on her thesis on Jack Martin in junior year at university. While Brown doesn't teach Raquel about de Monte, she eventually learns about the artist whose life mirrors her own more than any she's been presented in class. Overall: 3

Characters: 2 The ideas here are good. The concept of the book is incredible, but the execution leaves so much to be desired. Anita and Raquel are positioned as direct foils for one another. Anita was an artist who fell in love with another famous, rich artist with tons of cultural capital. She was abused by him and ultimately died because of his insecurities around her talent. Raquel is struggling to find her place in Brown's art history department without any connections or wealthy parents to help her, mirroring Anita's difficulties breaking into the art world as a Cuban immigrant. Raquel falls for a guy in her program who idolizes Jack Martin and has an influential family. He loves feeling superior to Raquel, and she loves him, as well as the allure of his world. The stories of the past and present unfold parallel and in a way that it is almost painfully obvious that Gonzales really really wants to make sure the reader catches on to the abundant similarities in Anita and Raquel's lives, perhaps to up the tension on whether Raquel will be able to make it out of her own slippery romantic dynamic. 

The issue is that none of these characters or relationships are particularly developed at all. There is just so much telling and so little showing or experience or trust in the reader or nuance. Anita is angry and wrathful, which she has every right to be given what's happened, but it's hard to get to know her beyond that. Anita's chapters are also told almost entirely in summary and have a weirdly juvenile feeling to them. I don't feel like Anita is allowed to be a dynamic person, and we solely see the aspects of her that most obviously feed the plot. 

Jack and Raquel's boyfriend Nick fall into a similar trap. They only exist within the tight confines of what they do for the plot. They are the villains, stifling the women in their lives to quell their own sorry, feeble egos. There's also a lot of weird, overblown fatphobia around Jack that really rubbed me the wrong way and didn't actually contribute to much of anything? There are so many reasons Anita could hate or criticize Jack, but so often it comes back to random fatphobic jabs that take away from the larger point. Even the villains of the story need to have something compelling to allow the reader to understand why they're even allowed to be in the story. Why did Anita stay with Jack for seven years? Raquel gives the feeble explanation that Nick makes her feel special, but we never sink into that feeling, watch those moments unfold, or gain our own understanding of how that happens. Both relationships just feel confounding and remarkably hollow. 

Raquel is the best part of this book by far. I wished it was just a book about Raquel's time at Brown navigating the Ivy League world feeling both like an outsider and caught between worlds. That was compelling, and her cast of friends is so much fun and full of life. All of the development in the book comes from this part of Raquel's life, and these portions of the book are why I kept reading. I don't feel like even Raquel was particularly developed, but she was given so much more detail and life than the others that it feels remarkable. 

Plot: 3 I love the concept of a college student unearthing the forgotten legacy of a murdered artist that she feels a kinship with, but the book just doesn't manage to deliver on this story. It's trying to do way too much with the multiple perspectives and constantly changing timelines. Certain events are unnecessarily rehashed, others are told from what felt like the wrong point of view. The pacing is slow and a bit tedious, and it feels like Gonzales was so worried about making her most obvious points that all the rich nuance swirling in this concept got shoved to the side. 

I also didn't really think the supernatural elements and Anita narrating how she came back to the world to move things around and screw with people as a ghost added much and really just slowed down the plot. The idea of Raquel making this discovery of Anita's work and it spurring her to change how she looked at herself and to make changes in the curriculum at Brown is so powerful, but Anita's weird cut-ins muddled the effect of the ending. 

Writing: 3 The book just feels painfully overwritten. It's trying way too hard to be interesting like it doesn't trust itself. I wish that the draft could've been stripped back to its studs and able to breath a bit because I really did feel such a connection to Raquel's story. I don't understand how this book went so wrong for me because I loved Gonzales's first book Olga Dies Dreaming. It was one of my favorite books of the year. While I felt like the ending spiraled into trying a bit too hard to be big and flashy, it was a satisfying read. The writing felt clear and decisive, and I never had to force myself through chapters of the book. The writing here is dense with long paragraphs and sentences that repeated the same information over and over in different ways. At 50%, I realized I just needed to start skimming, and I didn't feel like I was missing much. This was one of my most anticipated books of 2024, so I'm really disappointed that it didn't come together for me. 

I was also surprised to learn in the Goodreads reviews that Anita de Monte is actually heavily based on a real artist who created art like Anita's and also died in the same way – Ana Mendieta. I read the entire acknowledgements section and final matter and was surprised there was no mention of the inspiration at all.

More From This Author:

Olga Dies Dreaming review

More on Reading, Writing, and Me:

reread review: Beautiful World Where Are You

Conversations on Love nonfiction review

Ellipses review

7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Me


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