“I’m going to miss this painting so much. Look at it.”
I felt a jab in my wrist — the one cramped from reaching for the red robe for six weeks — as I finally did tug the one-sleeved robe across my chest to go stand before the painting. “It’s me.” But it was me as I had never seen myself: lit from the inside, magnificent. I could not see a single brushstroke until I put my face up close to the painting, and then they appeared, like single strands on a head of hair, like the single interlocking fronds that compose a feather. Even half a step back, they disappeared, and I emerged again, radiant. “It’s beautiful,” I said.
(from The Last Nude, page 82 in the uncorrected proof; finished version may be different)
There was something about The Last Nude that made me fall in love with the book almost as soon as I started reading. The writing is beautiful, painting a portrait of late 1920s Paris that gave me a good feel for a time and place I know little about. The characters were all flawed and exciting, and the art just came to life under Ellis Avery’s pen. I had never heard of the Polish Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka before reading this book, and as soon as I turned the last page, I went online to check out her paintings. They are warm and vibrant and gorgeous; The Dream is featured on the cover of the book.
Avery brings to life one of de Lempicka’s most famous models, Rafaela, who is the subject of several paintings, the most famous being La Belle Rafaela. Avery tells from Rafaela’s point of view how she came to pose for Tamara in 1927. Rafaela is an American teenager who goes to Paris to escape an arranged marriage. Penniless, she relies on her body to survive. Posing for Tamara becomes a means of making some quick and easy money, but soon she and Tamara become lovers.
Paintings of Rafaela spark a war among two affluent men and make Tamara even richer and more glamorous. Meanwhile, Rafaela’s hunger for food and basic necessities soon becomes a hunger for love and Tamara herself. Tamara doesn’t hide her other relationships or her selfishness, but Rafaela is blinded to the truth until it hits her head on.
The Last Nude is first and foremost about the art, with many sensual scenes as Rafaela poses for Tamara. But Avery goes beyond that to recreate the feeling of Paris between the world wars, with Rafaela straddling two worlds — one in which she mingles with Tamara and her aristocratic and new-money friends, and another in which she befriends the struggling writers who hang around the Shakespeare and Company bookstore popular for publishing James Joyce. The novel also focuses on desire and the muse, changing perceptions about same-sex relationships, and even the antisemitism that would gain strength over the next few years and culminate in the Nazi occupation of Paris and the events of the Holocaust. Avery even touches upon an artist’s legacy, as the latter half of the book is told from the point of view of Tamara on the last day of her life as she finishes a new Rafaela.
I honestly didn’t expect to love The Last Nude as much as I did. I worried (unnecessarily) that the sex would be too graphic or I wouldn’t feel a connection to the art, but those fears did not come to pass. Avery is a brilliant writer who kept me on the edge of my seat (and up past my bedtime) to find out what happened to Rafaela as she became more entangled in Tamara’s web, and in her skilled hands what could have been an overly dramatic scene on the Seine was so perfect in its desperation that I was left nearly breathless. Tamara’s story is so fascinating and Rafaela’s so sad — put the two women together, and you have the right combination for a novel that is as intelligent and complex as it is captivating and seductive.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.