book review: The Last Nude

The Last Nude , by Ellis Avery. Publisher: Riverhead (January, 2011). Literary fiction. Hardcover, 320 pg.

The Last Nude transports the reader to 1920s Paris and the expat art world. It’s an impressive work of historical fiction as the place and the characters become so vivid and recognizable to the reader. This makes The Last Nude a book you are hesitant to put down. It’s immensely engrossing.

Above my desk I have a small framed print of Tamara de Lempicka’s “My Portrait,” in which she sits at the wheel of a bright green car in a gray hat, gray scarf and bright red lipstick. I also have “Saint Moritz”—a striking woman wearing a red and white turtleneck ski sweater. I’ve always been drawn to these art deco paintings. The colors, the attitude, the soft edges. All very appealing. So when I saw The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, I knew I had to read it. I wasn’t disappointed.

Avery’s descriptions of Paris are elegant and magical, yet also gritty. The reader should be enraptured by Paris. How can one not? It’s such an artistic, fashionable, beautiful city. I stayed in Paris for some time, many years ago and a novel as descriptive as this one brings everything right back to me in full color. It’s a true delight. Avery focuses on many ex-pats like Sylvia Beach, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Peripheral characters include the Seine and Sylvia Beach’s famed bookstore Shakespeare and Company.

The Last Nude imagines an affair between Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models– the one who sat for “The Dream” and “Beautiful Rafaela.” She’s a young woman of 17, recently arrived in Paris, naive to the ways of the art world and the excessiveness of the 1920s as well. Tamara seduces Rafaela and Rafaela falls quickly and intensely in love with Tamara. Of course artists can be selfish and cruel but Rafaela gives her whole heart before learning about Tamara’s shortcomings. This is a novel about the roaring, stylish 20s, art, survival, love and betrayal.

I marveled as I pulled the brown dress over my head. Sleek fashion plate, focused artist, resplendent lover, competent mother: I had seen four Tamaras in two days.

When Tamara finds Rafaela she’s turning tricks and surviving by any means necessary—in most cases trading her body for dinners, food, gifts. She’s a stunning young woman but also naïve and impressionable. She admires Tamara’s independence [or seemingly so because later we find out that Tamara, as most artists of the time, had a benefactor], talent and sexual freedom. Rafaela quickly becomes obsessed with Tamara and believes they’re in a mutually exclusive relationship. But it’s the twenties and Tamara is an artist. Who is Tamara really? Rafaela doesn’t find this out until later.

The Last Nude resonates with and enthusiastic first love and the reality of supporting oneself as an artist. In imagining the liaison between artist and muse, Ellis Avery crafts an engulfing novel. She makes life in the 1920s pop from the pages.

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