Reviewed in this essay: The Last Nude by Ellis Avery. Riverhead Books, 2012.
If you didn’t already have a crush on Paris, reading The Last Nude may well convert you. If you’re already a Francophile, this is your bread and honey. Or perhaps, more appropriately, your pain aux chocolate. Avery’s novel retraces a familiar period, transporting the reader back to Paris of the 1920s, the artistic heyday of Fitzgerald, Picasso, Stein and countless others. Her focus is indeed this Jazz Age creative scene but predominantly from the eyes of an outsider. Rafaela Fano is a teenaged New Yorker who has fled to the city to escape an arranged marriage. But Rafaela is no ingénue, or at least not in the conventional sense. When we meet her, she has been living in the city for several months surviving through wealthy older boyfriends and casual prostitution; we are given only snippets of her wide-eyed arrival in Paris through flashbacks.
The novel explores Rafaela’s relationship with the painter Tamara de Lempicka. In essence, it is a fictionalization of Lempicka’s biography, told through the model she immortalized. Well known for her nudes and distinctive painting style, Lempicka’s personal life was also colorful and erratic. The painter came to Paris from Russia, barely escaping the Bolsheviks who arrested her husband. Of wealthy and prominent social standing, she was now an exile who became immersed in the bohemian culture of the time. While her husband was released and accompanied her to Paris, the increasingly famous painter became known for her numerous affairs with both men and women.
Lempicka encounters Rafaela by chance and convinces her to become her model, and quite soon after the two become lovers. The paintings for which Rafaela poses are well received by the art world and are coveted by two men, Dr. Boucard and Baron Raoul Kuffner, who show a persistent interest in both women. Boucard becomes Lempicka’s patron while both men scheme to get Le Reve (Rafaela sur fond vert), a painting Lempicka has said she will not sell as it represents her affection for the young model. As Rafaela, despite herself, becomes more infatuated with Lempicka, ambition intersects with deceit and the multiple definitions of love and desire.
Avery’s writing is evocative and, at times, poetic and she skillfully conveys the world of pigments and brush strokes in which so much of the novel is set. Her use of voice is also effective. The second, shorter, part of the book is told by Lempicka; the painter is now nearing the end of her life and living in Mexico. The contrast between the youthful Rafaela narrating the energetic frenzy of the 1920s and the retrospective and cynical elderly Lempicka, provides a successful counterbalance of narrative.
The Last Nude begins with a simple question: what happens when you get into a stranger’s car? Avery provides a compelling and captivating answer.