Anita de Monte Laughs Last: A Novel

Image of Anita de Monte Laughs Last: Reese's Book Club Pick (A Novel)
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Flatiron Books
Reviewed by: 

In a way, Xochitl González’s Anita de Monte Laughs Last is almost two novels in one, both great.

There’s a roman á clef set mostly in the eighties and clearly inspired in the last decade in the life of Ana Mendieta, the feminist conceptual artist who met a tragic end. The brilliant art performance provocateur. The Cuban immigrant heartbreakingly brought to the United States as a child of the Pedro Pan program.

Deeply researched, the novel focuses on Anita’s angst to be “someone,” to be recognized for her work while married to Jack, the more established art darling, and the alter ego of recently deceased sculptor Carl Andre, once accused and tried for, but not convicted of, her death.


“We weren’t yet married, but even so, I’d say that the night Jack’s Berkeley show opened was the beginning of the end for us. This night where, at a large dinner on ‘one of the most important nights’ of Jack’s career—when I couldn’t take another minute of being ignored—I made ‘a spectacle of myself.’ But someone else could say no, the beginning of the end was when I agreed to go to Berkeley with him in the first place, instead of taking the artists’ residency in Florida. By that reasoning, 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. But that line of thinking is depressing, isn’t it? Because if I were to think of the first moment I prioritized Jack’s desires over my own—if I were to truly pinpoint it? Well, I think I would find it uncomfortably close to the start of things. So close, I would have to say—in complete hindsight, of course—that perhaps we were always doomed.”

It is one of the novel’s strengths: its brutal depiction of the small and big moments of relationships embroiled in the stormy conflict of class-supercharged misogyny.

The other (half of the) novel follows Raquel (interestingly, also the name of Mendieta’s sister and cousin in real life), a graduate art history major navigating many of the same issues Mendieta, and alter ego Anita, navigate to their ends.

The problems in the contemporaneous story of the novel (Raquel’s)—class, race, the patriarchy, the Ivy League, migration and displacement, privilege in the art world—resemble the ones in the portion of the novel set in the ’80s (Anita’s), and one could be forgiven for concluding that the book’s message is that nothing has changed, least of all for women. That the Ivy League, the art world, and the patriarchy are the perfect storm of factors to perpetuate the issues stemming from how the ruling classes of those worlds use their privilege to “otherize” and oppress others. To stay ever on top.


“The fucking Art History Girls. Even in their absence, they somehow always claimed space. She was irritated that he thought her one of them. Frustrated that, despite being in nearly every art history class with them for the past two years, she most definitely was not. No matter how friendly she might be with Mavette.

“‘I don’t know,’ she said, curtly. ‘They have other plans for the summer.’

“Other plans, Mavette had told her, that included traipsing around the South of France, looking for Eurotrash boyfriends. Of course, Mavette had not put it that way. She’d gone on a rant about their futures and feminism’s diminished emphasis on romantic partnership and how this summer could be formative beyond just professional development. It didn’t matter. What it meant was that while Raquel was toiling away at the RISD museum, Claire and Margot would be sunbathing on Mavette‘s parents’ boat in Nice.”

Yes, the problems are facsimiles of each other, variating only in the context of time. But that is what makes them different. Because it is time, the passing of time and the events of that time, that gives these two protagonists different ways of approaching the world. And in that sense, the novel is a tense but effective  conversation between consecutive eras closely linked by more than the calendar in terms of what they mean for women, serving as an inventory of sorts of what can change when those who identify as female are able to approach the same human conundrums differently, thanks to the agency achieved for us by women like Anita and Ana Mendieta. Ancestors in the slowest of battles.

Compare Anita’s take on her marriage to Jack to Raquel’s more empowered one in her own romantic relationship with Nick, also a more powerful, richer and whiter, male artist:

“Eventually, she would lie there and remember there was more to her life than Nick. That missing was normal, that missing was part of the process. That missing, as her mother had reminded her, did not mean mistake.”

There’s a third point of view, though it doesn’t a whole other novel make: Jack, the alter ego of Carl Andre. It’s a risk González takes. A character on the page, no matter how evil, emerges humanized in some way because tridimensionality is a part of all good fiction, which this is.

Another risk is the lyrical element in allowing Anita’s ghost to speak, and though it’s certainly a tricky proposition to take embodiment that far, González makes it work. And what is fiction for, if not to imagine the words of the depressed ghost of a brilliant feminist artist gone too soon? Especially, if it serves to add complexity to the portrayal of one so often reduced to tragic figure.

“Later, when word got out that I had fallen (jumped? or, could it be, pushed?) out the window, this was what everyone would talk about. How they had just seen her! Anita de Monte. That very night! How she had been laughing. And how she had been dancing. And how, when she spun around and around, the silver sequins of her dress went flying. Up and into the air. Like the feathers of a molting bird.”

Anita del Monte Laughs Last is a tough study of how far, we (women, immigrants, the poor) have, or have not, come. It’s a conversation in the shape of a novel because it allows us to make compelling cases for both points of view, ultimately highlighting the intersecting dynamics of race, class, and gender, exploring societal inequality in a nuanced way, as well as its effect on the legacies of the overlooked and the marginalized, exploring, too, other more advanced angles of the themes of identity, power, and privilege. Of justice, memory, and truth. Of family and ambition.