In 2019, Ninth Letter had the honor of featuring Xochitl Gonzalez’ first publication: her stunning essay “Paloma Negra”, which was the winner of that year’s Disquiet International Literary Program Prize in Nonfiction. None of us are surprised that Gonzalez has since achieved far greater success. Her first novel, Olga Dies Dreaming, was a New York Times bestseller, and in 2023 she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, for her monthly columns in The Atlantic.

Now she has written a new novel, Anita de Monte Laughs Last, and it embodies all the promise and achievement of her first novel, and then some. Shifting back and forth between the mid-1980s in New York and the late-1990s in Providence, Rhode Island, the novel tells the slowly intertwining tales of two young women: Anita de Monte, an artist who died tragically at the hands of her husband Jack Martin (a fellow artist), before she could receive the recognition she deserved; and Raquel Toro, an art history student decades later at Brown University. Raquel is in the thrall of an undeserving partner (another insecure artist, like Jack), and is in danger of her own eventual erasure. But when she discovers, almost by accident, the nearly buried story and art of de Monte, an uncanny presence appears that seems intent on shifting Raquel’s fate.

—Philip Graham, Editor-at-Large

from Anita de Monte Laughs Last

Providence 1998

Nick’s studio was in a former brick factory in the Jewelry District that had been converted for artists’ use. He was sharing it—at least for the summer—with a locally famous mural artist who’d been commissioned to create a series of portraits for a wealthy investor who brought something called high-speed internet to Boston and apparently made a killing. The murals were, from what Raquel could surmise, images of his many pets. They were also remarkably better than what Nick had been working on and, as she and her small entourage exited the parked rental car, Raquel’s anxiety temporarily shifted from the forthcoming familial introduction to how to prevent them from accidentally gushing over the wrong artist’s work.

“So, Nick shares his studio with this painter who does really sensational portraits,” she said, “but Nick is working on these cool sculptures that the city is going to auction off to raise money for city art programs.”

They were boisterous as they made their way up the four flights of stairs to Nick’s studio; Betsaida regaling them with stories of growing up in Providence. Despite her mother’s general reservations about Dominicans, Betsaida immediately charmed her; she was declared “down to earth,” which Raquel knew was, in this context, the highest possible compliment. That Bets woke up early to prepare food for them to bring to the beach only raised her esteem, and the camaraderie around the crowded house that morning had soothed Raquel. Watching her two worlds interact so seamlessly, seeing so many people that she loved in one space—her space— temporarily dissolved this nagging loneliness that seemed to follow her everywhere. With the door to the studio in sight, a nervous feeling churned in her stomach. Her mother had no poker face and her sister might have one that Nick would buy, but that she—Raquel—would know how to read. He was just so sensitive and these sculptures were simply not very good. Or maybe they were and it was just a matter of taste. Tilly Barber didn’t sign just anyone, she kept reminding herself.

“Hello!” she called out as she opened the door. “We’re here.”

“I know,” Nick said as he walked toward her, “I could hear you all coming from down the block.”

He slipped his arm around her waist and kissed her cheek before she felt him tug at her hair, which hung loose down her back.

“Not very practical for the beach,” he whispered.

“This is my mom, Irma,” she said, ignoring him, as her mom reached out her hand. “And my sister Toni—”

Toni winked.

“And this is Betsaida,” she said.

“Of course,” Nick said, all smiles. “Ms. Toro, your daughter is the most brilliant and delightful woman. You must be so proud.”

“Thank you,” she said, smiling. “Rocky’s always had a good head on her shoulders.”

There was an awkward moment of silence that Raquel desperately wanted Nick to fill; something proactive she wanted him to say, though she was unsure of what it would be. It wasn’t like he could comment on her mother’s St. John’s dress. She glanced at her mother and sister and saw them for the first time not as the familiar entities she’d been surrounded by her entire life, but with fresh eyes. No, his eyes. His eyes on her mother and her curly mullet, the Betty Boop cover-up and her board shorts, her freckled face and pretty gray eyes set off by the circles under them. What was Nick making of Toni, with her quasi-Gothic bob and thick figure busting out of the tank dress she wore over her bikini? Of the terrible tribal tattoo she’d gotten on her ankle. The Revlon Toast of New York lipstick that had become nearly as permanent as the ink. They did not actually fit into any mold or aesthetic story Raquel had seen on this campus, period. Betsaida looked positively preppy in comparison, with her Brown University T-shirt, naked face, and Aquafored lips. She had been so riddled with anxiety about how her family would receive him—the very first boy in her life—she hadn’t stopped to think about what he would make of them. (Or maybe, if she were being honest, she was too frightened to think about it.) She wanted not to care what he thought. That it didn’t matter that he was seeing them as an extension of her, but suddenly she felt both nervous and anxious over what, exactly, that would mean.

“So, Raquel told us about your piece at the Guggenheim,” her mother said, finally breaking the silence. “Very impressive for such a young man. Was it similar to these?”

Her mother gestured to the three slightly larger than life-size sculptures around the room: each of a gondola and, the main variation between them, varying gondoliers. Raquel felt then a bit of relief—her mother’s edges were rough, but she was a smart cookie. Knew how to turn on the charms. (But why was it her mother performing for him, she thought? Shouldn’t it be him endearing himself to her?)

“Oh, no, no,” he said, “the stuff I sold to the Guggenheim was different. Drawings.”

“Oh, you draw too,” Toni said with enthusiasm.

“Yeah, but I’m leaning into sculpture these days.”

Raquel’s shoulders tensed; give them something to fucking work with here.

“Well, these look cool,” her mother said.

“Thanks,” Nick said, the smile so fixed now, Raquel felt it start to feel fake.

“They remind me a little bit of the Segals by Christopher Street,” Toni said.

“Mira!” her mom said, walking toward one of them now. “I was trying to think of what they reminded me of! You’re so right.”

She was so right, Raquel thought. It was partly why she hated them. They were derivative. As if to counter this thought, Raquel suddenly found herself saying: “Nick is moving back to New York at the end of the summer. He got signed by one of the biggest galleries in the art world; they represent Jack Martin.”

Nick pulled her closer to him, kissed her on the top of her head.

“OK, even I’ve heard of him,” Betsaida said, impressed. “The steel plates, right? I don’t get it at all, mind you, but I know who he is.”

“There’s nothing to get,” Raquel’s mom chimed in. “The point is to appreciate the materials and do they change the space or not.”

“Damn Rocky, Mami’s about to bogart your art history degree,” Toni added. Everyone laughed but Raquel tried not to notice how stiff Nick’s smile was.

“I’m just repeating what they told us on the staff tour we got before that sculpture show last year,” her mom said. She seemed relaxed, the ice broken somehow. “Nick, you should come with us. Hang at the beach.”

“Oh, thank you, Ms. Toro,” he said. “But I just came in to say hello to you ladies and then I’m getting in my car and heading to my parents’ place in the Hamptons.”

“The Hamptons,” her mother muttered, and Raquel was torn between her surprise at this news and her embarrassment at her mother’s response. (You never acknowledge the money. Never.)

“You’re leaving?” Raquel asked, hearing the consternation in her voice.

“Yeah,” he said, a little sheepishly.

“I decided last night. You’re tied up here, and they missed me. They were super bummed you couldn’t come.”

Nick grabbed her hand now, turned to face her mother. “My parents love Raquel—”

“You’ve met his parents?” Raquel’s mom interjected.

The Hamptons. The parents. Oh, the dramatics this would drum up. She couldn’t get this over with quickly enough.

“Oh, yeah,” Nick said, “they took us to this amazing dinner and then we all went to Campus Dance together. My dad went here, so he loves all that tradition stuff.”

“Of course,” Toni said, and Raquel felt her suspicious eyes. “Who wouldn’t?”

Raquel tried to make eye contact with her mother, but she wouldn’t even look at her.

“Nick, nice to meet you,” her mother said, offering her hand out again. “But you’ve got a big drive, and we should get going. Hopefully we’ll see you again. For longer next time.”

“Oh, definitely,” Nick said. “Girls like Raquel are hard to come by.”

“I know,” her mother said.

After Raquel let everyone else go ahead with promises to meet them at the car, Nick leaned in and kissed her, aggressively, pushing his hand up under her T-shirt.

“Stop,” she whispered as she gently pushed him away. “My mom is right outside.” He leaned in again and she pulled herself away.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were going to the Hamptons?”

“I seemed like a low priority to you this weekend.”

Why did he always do this? The sulking.

“You guys have a great time,” he continued. She didn’t know why she suddenly felt overcome with a sense of insecurity.

“When are you coming back?” she asked, the question hanging in the air with an excessive amount of gravity.

“I dunno. Maybe Monday? Tuesday? Maybe I’ll head into New York for a day to see if I can meet with Tilly.”

“Oh,” she said. “What? You have shit all weekend and I have to start getting the rest of my life in order.”

Was that a life with her? she wondered. He’d just said that it would be. Just said that girls like her were hard to come by. She didn’t understand why she felt so uneasy. She got closer to him now, leaned in, and kissed him. Tried to put all of her body and feeling into it.

“Don’t,” he said, pushing her away gently. “I’ll just get worked up and, like you said, your mom is waiting.”

“OK,” she said. “I’ll call you when I’m back.”


The whole drive to the beach, to Raquel’s relief, nobody brought up Nick. She knew that this wasn’t necessarily a good sign—that when they liked someone or something, like Betsaida or Marcus or Oysters Rockefeller (her mother had licked her fingers over these and declared them “delectable”)—they were very verbal about their opinion.

He hadn’t done anything wrong, but he certainly hadn’t done anything right exactly, either. One of the things Raquel appreciated the most about Nick when they first met (and even now, when, admittedly, it sometimes felt cloying) was how he made her feel special, valued. That was not the vibe he gave off today to her family. It felt obligatory. Forced. She felt hurt for them, but also defensive of him. This wasn’t who he really was. It was just a bad day. When she’d seen him last on Friday morning, he was admittedly sulky about a whole weekend apart but normal. Today, though, it felt like something had shifted. Still, he came. He didn’t even need to do that much, she realized. He’d gotten up early to meet them, even knowing he wasn’t staying in town. He could have, she surmised, left last night for the Hamptons. But he didn’t. He stayed to meet her family. Because that was important to her. So what that it didn’t go well? There’d be a second chance to make a different impression.

The beach was nothing like the beach in New York; blankets practically piled on top of each other. Family running into family, just the accents and skin color and music delineating one group from the next. In Rhode Island, the beach was vast. The sand was pale and soft and the water, cool and briny. When you could see buildings, they weren’t housing projects or cheap, old condos but historic buildings and lighthouses. “This shit is straight out of a J.Crew catalog,” Toni’d exclaimed when they walked onto the pristine corn-colored sand. It was. Somehow it was pretty and preppy but not pretentious. The kind of America they sing about in classic rock songs. Everything Raquel had wanted from college, but without the sense of otherness. Far less vibrant and diverse than New York, but with a beauty that she felt—and could see her mom and Toni felt—grateful to experience. They laid out and played Frisbee with a group of frat guys from URI that were near them—something Raquel would never have done with frat guys from Brown. When it was time for lunch, they dug into the spaghetti Betsaida had made. (“Weird choice, but strangely satisfying?” her mother had declared, before later whispering to Raquel while Betsaida went in for a dip, “I told you, Dominicans are mad strange.”) They listened to music and tried to play cards, but it was too windy. Toni tried to read their tarot, but she was too bad at it. It was a gorgeous afternoon.

Just as they were trying to decide if they should pack it up or go in for one last dip, someone called her name. Assuming there was another Raquel, she ignored it.

“Broccoli!” the voice called out now, and when Raquel looked up, there was Julian, with some other dude, walking toward them. She remembered his message from right before the end of the year. She’d never called him back. She hadn’t, she realized, thought about him much at all.

“Julian,” she called back. “Whaddup!”

He approached and introductions were made all around, the other dude being a very hot, slightly older Latino-looking guy named Sam whom Julian introduced as his cousin. (“Play cousins,” he added when they all looked confused.) Raquel’s mom offered the guys beers (she was acting like a straight-up underage alcohol pimp this weekend) and, unprompted, Toni took one look at Sam and declared, “We definitely shouldn’t leave yet.”

“Julian and I know each other from my one failed actual art class,” Raquel said, which made them both start laughing. “I tried to paint Duran Duran—”

“You did? I loved that friggin’ dog,” her mother exclaimed. “He was the sweetest—”

“Not the way I painted him,” the memory of how upset she’d been now truly hilarious to her. “It’s a long story, but let’s just say he ended up looking like a pile of broccoli.”

“Broccoli with eyes,” Julian added. “She got so pissed about her crit, she threw the painting away after.”

“These things are brutal!” Raquel lamented. “You don’t even understand.”

“Wait,” her mother said. “You threw a painting of Duran Duran away?”

“It’s at the house,” Raquel said. “Julian saved it for me.”

“I dumpster dove for her. That’s what it took for her to be my friend. She can be a little stuck-up sometimes, you know?”

And Toni and her mother laughed because, yes, they understood.

Sam was quiet but not for a lack of Toni asking him questions. He was getting his master’s at UConn, was visiting for the weekend. Julian told everybody about how he was actually a great R&B singer and Julian was trying to make him beats, which then begat even more questions: about Julian and his music, about Julian and his mix tapes. They were having such a good time, Raquel didn’t even care when her mother invited them to dinner.

“Ah, Ms. Toro, I wish we could, but it’s our night to grind in my little makeshift studio.”

“No, do your thing, nene,” she said. “Some other time. If you’re ever in New York.”

“True dat,” he said and gave her mother a kiss on the cheek.

They were walking away, and Raquel couldn’t tell if it was how sweet the gesture of him saving Duran Duran suddenly seemed to her now that the bitterness of the moment had passed, but she felt herself sad to watch him go. Regretful that she’d never returned his call. She promised herself to email him Monday to make a plan.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Raquel was inundated.

“Yo,” Betsaida said, “Julian is mad cool.”

“Such a fun dude,” Toni chimed in.

“Yeah,” Raquel said, “sweet guy. I hadn’t seen him all summer.”

“Now that is a good guy,” her mother said, in a final, definitive statement.

The implied second clause of the sentence—not like that fucking cabrón you took us to meet this morning—didn’t need to be uttered.

After the beach, Toni insisted they go to an oyster house they had passed and they gorged themselves (well, everyone but Raquel, who claimed to be full from the spaghetti) on baked oysters, bourbon oysters, clams, and all the seafood they could manage to stuff into their little mouths. Raquel was confident that Toni and her mother had to have spent more than they won in the Hot 97 contest. She tried to pay the bill (the truth was, Nick paid for so much of her life these days, she’d never been so flush), but they wouldn’t let her. “Think of what you saved us on hotels!” her mother said.

It was dark by the time they started driving back. Toni took the wheel because Mami had one daquiri too many at dinner and, coupled with the sun, she was already snoozing beside Betsaida in the back. Hot 106 had switched to R & B now (Just like fucking 360, Raquel thought) and they had been talking about Toni and her boyfriend and if she still really liked him or not (“I think the answer is not,” Raquel said) when Toni stated, “He’s not good enough for you.”

Raquel felt her tears well up immediately. She didn’t want to have this conversation.

When she didn’t reply, Toni continued.

“You think he’s doing you some sort of favor by being with you—”

“Oh my God, what are you, Mami now?” Raquel hissed. “Everything’s the worst side of everything.”

“Sometimes she’s right!”

“You don’t understand how it is here,” Raquel said. “Me and Bets and Marcus and everybody like us, we’re like, here, but we’re also not here. Like we got in but then we aren’t welcome. He helps me. When I’m with him, I’m fully here.”

She tried to fight the tears but they weren’t staying away.

“You’re right. I don’t know what it’s like here. I go to dumb Brooklyn College and Mami works in a cafeteria and goes to BMCC. But we know good people and he’s not good people.”

“It was a bad meeting.”

“You look at him like he’s a prize at a carnival and you’re the dumb bitch who won the stuffed dog with her only token. And he looks at us like we’re there to clean his studio.”

“But that’s not how he looks at me,” Raquel said.

“Does it matter?” Toni said, and Raquel could hear the anger in her voice. “We’re all from the same house.”

And Raquel didn’t know what to say to this because it was true. They were all from the same house. She had just been the one who wanted to get out.

Like what you read? Check out another excerpt of Xochitl Gonzalez’s remarkable Anita de Monte Laughs Last in The Atlantic.

Final Thoughts with Xochitl Gonzalez

Philip Graham: Anita de Monte Laughs Last is a rich world unto itself, containing within its pages the contemporary art world, the rise of hip-hop, social inequities and cultural change, two love stories and much more, while the narrative expertly balances realism with the uncanny. How did you brave the balance of all these elements as you wrote your novel?

Xochitl Gonzalez: I suppose that I will start with the divine: which is that I had the conceit for this novel pretty whole. A memory sparked another memory and the next thing you know, I was soft pitching a friend a “braided novel that takes the life of an art history student with the life and afterlife of an artist seeking vengeance for the erasure of her work by the man who murdered her.” The book was inspired by Ana Mendieta’s life and unfortunate death, but also very much my own sense of reflection on what it was like to go through four years of elite education and then to discover that everyone like you had been conveniently left out of the narrative. (The epigraph is from my textbook for Intro to Art History, which I still have.)

Anyway, I say that the concept coming whole had a lot to do with it, because then I was just sort of committed to doing what was probably the scariest of all the things—which is essentially find a way to braid seemingly unrelated narratives and give them each a plot. I turned to The Hours—in this case both the film and the novel—as a model because I felt the film enhanced one really genius thing I loved about the book—which was cadence. Writing Raquel was challenging because it was hard to strip away years of knowledge. And so I turned back to my journals and they were just so full of music and music and more music. And I just remembered how much my headphones comforted me and would allow me to carry what felt like sonic “home’ in college and that felt such a part of my little campus life then—that passion for Hip Hop and R & B—that I had to give that to Raquel…And then, when writing Anita’s story (which is Jack’s story), I turned to The Shining, the novel, to sort of open my synapses to the mix of grounded and phantasmic…because that book is really about that marriage.

And so I sort of outlined it and began—originally in third person completely. But it was really stuck. Tonally. I got to the part where I knew she needed to up the ante on her haunting and it just wasn’t really singing to me. And around this time I took a trip to Rome related to research for the book and I read When I Sing Mountains Dance, and I decided to write Anita first person and suddenly that opened everything up. In the sense that, if I was dead—which I had to imagine being in order to write it—what would the boundaries of my world be? And I decided pretty boundless. Like, I looked to Taino legends and patakis of Santeria for guidelines of this world, but I certainly felt the reality for Anita was just more expansive than everyone else’s. So I suppose the answer to how to brave it—I guess was really, really leaning into character! In all cases, really leaning into character…

And maybe the only other thing I would add is, probably about half way through this first draft, I realized I was going to have to essentially write two full books and then edit them down into one—like a film, in that sense… I needed to shoot more days of footage than I knew I would need, but I needed to write it. And when I made peace with that, it was also very freeing.

Xochitl Gonzalez is the New York Times bestselling author of Olga Dies Dreaming. Named a Best of 2022 by The New York Times, TIME, Kirkus, Washington Post, and NPR, Olga Dies Dreaming was the winner of the Brooklyn Public Library Book Prize in Fiction and the New York City Book Award. Gonzalez is a 2021 MFA graduate from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her nonfiction work has been published in Elle Decor, Allure, Vogue, Real Simple, and The Cut. Her commentary writing for The Atlantic was recognized as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A native Brooklynite and proud public school graduate, Gonzalez holds a BA from Brown University and lives in her hometown of Brooklyn with her dog, Hectah Lavoe.