Book: The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
Reviewed by: Sophia
I was unfamiliar with Tamara de Lempicka before picking up The Last Nude, Ellis Avery’s novel that re-imagines the artist’s life in Jazz Age Paris. Somewhat ironically, my friend John, a book designer and mental curator of images, revealed to me as I began reading that he has admired de Lempicka’s work since the ‘70s. Fortunately, as it turns out, it’s never too late to discover de Lempicka’s works. One of her most famous, The Dream, is depicted on the cover of The Last Nude. Stunningly beautiful, with its striking bold colors, hard lines, and subject’s captivating gaze, The Dream is a treat to behold. I returned to the book as much to read as to look at the artwork. The cover definitely sets a mood and tone for the imaginative trip set between its pages.
That trip is de Lempicka’s love affair with the model depicted in her most famous work. The majority of the novel is actually told from the model Rafaela Fano’s point of view—an interesting choice, given that de Lempicka is recognizable for her contribution to Western art, whereas Fano, outside of her image, is lost to history. Rafaela’s point-of-view presents the realities of a working-class female in 1920s France and pits them against the bourgeoisie world of de Lempicka (who, outside of commissioning her artwork, was born to a wealthy family). In Avery’s portrayal, Rafaela grew up as part of a middle-class Italian family in New York but, after coming to France to escape an arranged marriage, resorts to prostitution. When she begins to model for de Lempicka, her fortune changes. Not only can she afford her rent without sleeping with men she despises, she suddenly finds herself in contact, through de Lempicka, with some of the most wealthy and influential people then living in Europe.
Rafaela’s romantic prospects change, too—she is immediately captivated by de Lempicka. The seventeen-year-old has otherwise dated men but believes she can realize true love in a same-sex relationship, as if the problems present in heterosexual relationships—misunderstanding, frustration, manipulation—can somehow disappear. Rafaela finds proof of exemplary same-sex love surrounding her in Paris, where even in the 1920s women were openly living as lesbians. However, Rafaela turns a blind eye to the infidelities equally present in this world. As much she has the example of Sylvia and Adrienne, the real-life couple who founded storied Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co., she has Romaine Brooks, the reputed painter whose girlfriend openly sleeps with other women.
Rafaela must deal with de Lempicka’s own infidelities—The Last Nude portrays the artist as a womanizer who happens to be a woman. To Rafaela—smart, perceptive, and self-respecting, though vulnerable—it’s apparent that de Lempicka has slept with many of the women she has painted, the very ones who circulate in and out of Tamara’s apartment and the parties she frequents. The major question looming over the novel is whether or not de Lempicka, divorced and ten years older than Rafaela, will succumb to love and respond in earnestness to Rafaela’s genuine affection.
The Last Nude is Avery’s second novel, and she pulls it off masterfully. With sparkling prose and an engaging plot that includes a mystery shrouding Rafaela’s friend in Paris, it is at once an examination of the role of class at play in our personal lives and an intimate portrayal of historical figures whom time and importance have cloaked in some anonymity.