The Last Nude Hardcover – Jan 10 2012
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“The Last Nude breaks important ground for literature, and does so with exuberance, skill, and grace.”
“A compulsively readable novel.”
“A taut, elegant novel . . . [Avery’s] prose sings.”
“Seductive and compelling, the novel is painted with as much drama and precision as one of Lempicka’s canvases.”
“A sly, sleekly written stereograph of art, desire, and desperation in Paris in the ’20s, The Last Nude brings Rafaela to electric life, much as Tamara de Lempicka did when she painted her.”
“The Last Nude is a remarkable novel: at once a seductive evocation of Lost Generation Paris, a faithful literary rendering of Tamara de Lempicka's idiosyncratic and groundbreaking art, and a vibrant, intelligent, affecting story in its own right. It’s also smoking hot.”
“Ellis Avery transports the reader on a fast-paced magic-carpet ride to Paris between the world wars, a time when artists, patrons, and models fused the business of sex and art, with deeply painful results.”
“The Last Nude carries us through one of the most fascinating and turbulent periods in modern art, and into the minds and bodies of two of art history’s most riveting heroines. With prose and imagery that are both lyrical and unabashedly sensual, Ellis Avery breathes life and depth into famed artist’s muse Rafaela, tracing her rocky but thrilling path from lost girl to Lost Generation icon, and laying bare acts of love, desire and betrayal with all the assuredness of a master artist herself.”
About the Author
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I was unfamiliar with the life and works of de Lempicka and after reading this enjoyable novel, I did some reading. She comes across in the brief biographies I read as a rather nasty piece of work, and it is to the author's credit that she makes a great effort to explain, if not justify, some of her subject's more egregious acts. She also hewed pretty closely to the known facts -- while allowing her imagination free rein in the character of Rafaela, the narrator of the novel.
The author invents a convincing back story for Rafaela, half-Jewish, half Catholic, forced to leave her mother and step-father's New York home at age 15, running away from an arranged marriage in Sicily and finding herself in Paris trying to claw together a living by whatever means necessary.
Rafaela meets Tamara who is struck by her sensuality and finds her an irresistible subject. The two fall in lust and then in love -- but the naive Rafaela is no match for the complex and subtle Tamara who is playing a double and maybe a triple game.
The author displays considerable cleverness in introducing various real-live characters from the demi-monde of Paris in this "Moveable Feast" era, including a character half based on Hemingway and half on one of his characters from "The Sun Also Rises."
The depiction of the era and the main characters is first-rate and the book turns out to be an absorbing read. I even believed in Tamara's genius -- until I actually saw her pictures which are definitely not my cup of tea.
I'm giving this book four stars because I think the last section of the book, in which we jump forward many decades to Tamara's final days, is not up to the standard of the rest. There's something a little too facile at the way the artist looks back on her brief but tumultuous acquaintance with Rafaela and draws devastating conclusions about her life.
In the end, fictionalizing a real person is a hit-or-miss affair. This is perhaps a version of Tamara's life -- but is it real? How can we know? How can anyone know?
The novel touches on many themes -- unequal relationships in which one person holds too much power, the intrigue and drama of the art world, the nature of an artist's vocation, the effect of an artist's vocation on her family, friends and loved ones, the question of limits in exploiting others for the sake of one's art -- and more themes beyond that.
The characters, both primary and secondary, are well-developed, the plot grips you until the last page, the historical research is extensive and for the most part accurate. So why didn't I like this book? I normally love stories about writers and artists.
My problem -- you may not have this problem -- is that Tamara de Lempicka, the painter, is depicted as such a selfish jerk -- and this is apparently based on accurate historical research -- that I just didn't care what happened to her. That is a problem in a love story where Tamara is one of the two primary characters. Rafaela was wonderful -- sweet, courageous and struggling to hold her own against an older, more powerful and unscrupulous lover, as she tries to define who she herself is and what career she should follow.
Expect a fascinating but very dark story of love and betrayal.
1927 Paris. Rafaela only wants a hundred francs to buy a black dress so she can take over her flat mate's department store job. In danger of falling into prostitution, she meets Tamara De Lempicka, painter of exotic, sexy Art Deco, and poses for several paintings.
Although outside the parameters of what I usually read, this period piece is well written and sensual. The writer skillfully paints the decadent lifestyle of artists of the time. The passion of the two women grows as does their disparate outlooks on life. Characters are well defined. We grow to despise the self-centered, manipulative Lempicka and empathize with Rafaela's lost naiveté. Readers will glimpse the artistic culture of 1920s Paris and enter the world of erotic lesbianism. The book ends with dangling threads as it suddenly abandons the women's relationship to finish Lempicka's story.
Ellis Avery, inspired by a 1927 Lempicka oil painting called, "Beautiful Rafaela" recreates their relationship in her second historical fiction novel. Another painting from their affair, "The Dream" is the cover art for the book. In an interview, Avery explains that Jazz Age Paris provided the "environment in which a number of different kinds of romantic and sexual relationships between women flourished in a way they rarely had before." Ms. Avery took a weeklong intensive figure-painting class to learn what it's like on the other side of the brush.
Penguin's Riverhead Books Division graciously supplied the advance review copy.
Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
This is not a light novel. I wasn't able to read more than 30 pages at a time. It's not that the prose was a difficult slog, but rather the subject matter was so dark. Lempicka was a temperamental, mercurial artist. She could be incredibly loving or incredibly cruel, sometimes in the same breath. She was brilliant, but a difficult character to love.
Rafaela's life was the most troublesome. Avery does an excellent job of exposing the ephemeral life of Paris party girls. Rafaela and her roommate Gin live lives of glitz and glamour, on the surface. Gin has a boyfriend in the banking industry, Rafaela has no trouble getting dates with wealthy fellas. But when told from Rafaela's viewpoint, the life of glitz and glamour isn't quite so sparkly. Rafaela escaped an arranged marriage that would have forced her to toil as a poor housewife while producing child after child, but in order to escape that life she was forced to prostitute herself. This man took her to Paris and set her up with a place to stay, money, and magnificent dinners and parties. But everything comes with a cost. Rafaela is passed from man to man, trying to keep herself fed and sheltered. She has to sell her expensive gifts to make ends meet. She sleeps in coatrooms at the Ritz so her roommate can entertain male callers in the hopes that someday one of them will marry her. Rafaela has to have sex with lecherous old men and snotty young men who try to mold her into what they want her to be. Rafaela is never allowed to be her own person. Until she meet Lempicka.
When she begins her affair with the artist, Rafaela can finally thrive as a person. She no longer has to prostitute herself, she has ready money, and she can finally just be alone with her own time. But her new life as an artist's muse is not idyllic. She must face Lempicka's increasingly mercurial attitudes, long absences, and jealousy after they become lovers. Rafaela finally feels herself an equal in an affair, but Lempicka's cruelty is a difficult price to pay. Soon Rafaela loses herself again, this time in love. There are some memorable erotic scenes in this novel, so it may not be suitable for younger audiences.
Rafaela's lesbian affair with Lempicka also draws her into the secret world of Paris' queer culture. She befriends the owner of an independent bookstore, Sylvia, who publishes James Joyce in France, and she becomes an observer of the alternative lifestyles available to women.
This is an engaging novel, but ultimately a troubling one. If you're looking for something light, this is not it. Be prepared to confront the dark side of human emotion and experience. The most poignant love affairs do not have happy endings.
De Lempicka is a fascinating and difficult choice for Avery. As one reads, one senses that the character is not always easy for Avery to work with. There is much to love and hate about de Lempicka; we admire and we are repelled. There are moments while reading when one can palpably feel the struggle the author is having with this larger-than-life woman artist whose twisted history of seduction and betrayal seems almost to have overtaken Avery herself as she fights with de Lempicka through her keyboard.
What THE LAST NUDE does well is introduce or remind readers of a special time in Paris when the city is filled with expatriates, all seeming to live edgy and creative lives, some with money and some without. Many famous artists and socialites are mentioned and appear throughout the book. Although this can seem a bit gimmicky at times, it is also fun for the reader and sets de Lempicka's life and the life of her model, Rafaela, into a lively and understandable picture frame.
Ellis Avery has an excellent sensibility when it comes to writing about bisexuality, a difficult subject not always explored or portrayed well in literature. For this one reason alone, THE LAST NUDE has the potential to be nominated for awards and given special consideration. Avery's talent for this may have played out better if she hadn't tried to write about both a famous person and bisexuality as the two often seem to fight each other across the pages. On balance, if she had not chosen de Lempicka as the vehicle for her story, the portrayal of bisexuality might not get the attention it is bound to receive with de Lempicka as its "star."
THE LAST NUDE has a few rough spots that may cause readers pause, but should not interfere greatly with their overall enjoyment of the book. Rafaela's portrayal as the teenager chosen by Lempicka as her star model and part-time lover often feels incomplete and not totally fleshed out. Rafaela's forays into prostitution are quite well written and believeable, but much of Rafaela's story, including her background, her trip to the continent on an ocean liner, and her subsequent journey to Paris are vague and a bit confusing. Perhaps because Rafaela is the kind of character readers want to know more about, the way Avery tells her story can leave many wanting to know more. There is a definite disconnect with Rafaela between the teenager she is supposed to be and the life she is leading; it is almost impossible to think of - or believe in - her as as teenager.
Two other areas disappoint: one, the disappearance of Rafaela at a time in the narrative when the reader is just beginning to understand her better, and two, the excessive use of conversation in the novel to the detriment of the wonderful narrative description that Avery can write. Perhaps she can be forgiven for dropping Rafaela in order to focus more on de Lempicka, but many readers will feel their highest frustration level with all the chatty and very unnecessary patches of conversation inserted throughout the book.
Despite some issues, Avery has produced highly enjoyable reading, recreated a time in history that always deserves special attention, and has made a major contribution to the literature of bisexuality. Because the author was able to accomplish so much, the weaker parts of the novel should not be at the forefront of any review. Avery will change and grow as a writer, and readers WILL remember this book.