Book Review: The Last Nude

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
The Last Nude

by Ellis Avery
Penguin, 2012
320 pages (hardcover)


Paris in the Jazz Age. A backdrop to art, literature, fashion, music, sparkling cocktails, catty society, public sexuality, political intrigue, and parties so lavish that the famous guests compete to be the entertainment. Rafaela Fano, American and seventeen, arrives in Paris not of her own will. But soon she is in love. The light, the architecture, the dresses—it’s thrillingly more than she anticipated when she was forcibly shipped off to marry a now-lost cousin. Doing what she must to stay and survive, she accepts anonymity in the glittering city—until she becomes the most famous model of artist Tamara de Lempicka.

The Last Nude, Ellis Avery’s second novel, re-imagines the relationship between the celebrated Art Deco artist and her most inspiring muse. Part One, and the bulk of the novel, is told from Rafaela’s point of view, sixteen years after they meet. She recounts their chance connection, Tamara’s offer to earn a little money modeling for her, the understated elegance of her apartment, the artistic discipline and brilliance she observes, and her own shock at being sexually aroused by this mysterious, self-possessed woman. Their passion is transferred to the canvas, where Tamara’s paintings of Rafaela win her recognition and a line of collectors. But their expectations are not shared. Rafaela recognizes, looking back, the naïveté of her youth, the clarifying lessons of first love and the seeds of the confidence she will live by later.

Part Two, much shorter and darker than the first, is Tamara’s story. It is decades later, and in her final days of decline she reflects on her achievements and her lost relationships. The structure is unusual; the shift in perspective is abrupt, and Rafaela’s story as told in the middle distance already feels complete. But then Tamara’s wandering memories—like light from an unexpected angle—reveal significant later encounters that changed the story, if her memory and her willful revisions can be trusted.

Avery’s writing is strikingly simple, spare sentences vibrating with the language of color and texture, occasionally flecked with French. The story is fiction, erotica, history. A handful of settings—Rafaela’s flat, Tamara’s apartment, an art gallery, a bridge on the Seine—evoke the intim
acy of a stage. The cultural icons of the 1920s walk on and off; a few simply are mentioned in the wings. Some scenes are quiet tableaus, accompanied only by the flick of a paintbrush or the turn of a page, while others unfurl cinematically in silk and peacock feathers.

The Last Nude is a love story between two women, between an artist and her muse, between an artist’s skill and her admirers, and between a vivacious city at the end of era and her most memorable residents. It asks the unanswerable questions: What is the elusive quality that makes a painting art? How can a person’s essence be so completely depicted by another? How do the events of our past add up to a life? How do the hurts of our youth become sweet memories of age? And who would we be if we had never met the other?

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