The Last Nude

( 19 )

Overview

“As erotic and powerful as the paintings that inspired it.”—Emma Donoghue, author of Room

Paris, 1927. One day in July, a young American named Rafaela Fano gets into the car of a coolly dazzling stranger, the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka. Struggling to support herself, Rafaela agrees to model for the artist, a dispossessed Saint Petersburg aristocrat with a murky past. The two become lovers, and Rafaela inspires Tamara’s most iconic ...

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The Last Nude

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Overview

“As erotic and powerful as the paintings that inspired it.”—Emma Donoghue, author of Room

Paris, 1927. One day in July, a young American named Rafaela Fano gets into the car of a coolly dazzling stranger, the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka. Struggling to support herself, Rafaela agrees to model for the artist, a dispossessed Saint Petersburg aristocrat with a murky past. The two become lovers, and Rafaela inspires Tamara’s most iconic Jazz Age images, among them her most accomplished—and coveted—works of art. A season as the painter’s muse teaches Rafaela some hard lessons: Tamara is a cocktail of raw hunger and glittering artifice. And all the while, their romantic idyll is threatened by history’s darkening tide. A tour de force of historical imagination, The Last Nude is about genius and craft, love and desire, regret and, most of all, hope that can transcend time and circumstance.

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Editorial Reviews

Kathryn Lang
As in her first novel…Avery deftly re-creates a lost period…[The Last Nude is] a compulsively readable novel that brings to life a diva whose biography is as titillating as her paintings.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
In Avery’s second novel (after The Teahouse Fire), poor young Rafaela meets Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka in 1920s Paris. Rafaela is no stranger to the currency of sex (“I had traded sex for a train ticket, for an apartment, for a coat and hat and shoes, and most recently... for money”). Before meeting de Lempicka, however, Rafaela had never gone to bed because she wanted to, and the artist awakens the young woman’s desire. Centered around de Lempicka’s provocative nudes of Rafaela, the novel chronicles the shifting boundaries between artist and muse over the course of a heated affair. The relationship is tested when the prestigious Salon d’Automne jury accepts two of de Lempicka’s Rafaela paintings, The Dream and La Bella Rafaela. De Lempicka receives an offer for the latter work before the exhibit even opens, and Rafaela’s portrait becomes a sensation, leaving her uncertain of what to expect in the wake of success, especially from her lover. Though at times contrived, the strength of Avery’s novel lies in her depiction of a driven and accomplished artist and an impressionable waif who finds that her beauty no longer belongs to her. (Jan.)
Oprah.com
“What’s not to love about Ellis Avery’s romantic novel.”
Oprah.com
San Francisco Chronicle
“Absorbing, affecting, and agitating . . . this work is highly recommended.”
Library Journal [HC starred review]
The Boston Globe
“The strength of Avery’s novel lies in her depiction of a driven and accomplished artist and an impressionable waif who finds that her beauty no longer belongs to her.”
Publishers Weekly
More Magazine
“What’s not to love about Ellis Avery’s romantic novel.”
Oprah.com
Booklist
“Plummer . . . captures [young Rafaela’s] appealing energy. . . . Caruso narrates the artist’s part just as convincingly. . . . This is an excellent production of a fascinating story.”
AudioFile
Sound Commentary
“Breaks important ground for literature, and does so with exuberance, skill and grace.”
San Francisco Chronicle
From the Publisher
“A wholly original and engrossing story, set in a fascinating time and place . . . and a display of exceptional talent.”
The Boston Globe

“A taut, elegant novel...[Avery’s] prose sings.”
More Magazine

“Both actors’ convincing performances match the voices of numerous internationals residing in Paris during the Jazz Age.”
Booklist

“Caruso’s voice for Rafaela is a breathy whisper. It becomes more emotional as Rafaela’s relationship with Tamara changes from employer to friend to lover. Plummer reads the elderly Tamara beautifully. . . . A fascinating combination of fact and fiction.”
—Sound Commentary

Library Journal
In 1927, bold and glamorous Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka encountered 17-year-old Rafaela while in Paris's Bois de Boulogne and took her home, using her as a model for six significant paintings (including Beautiful Rafaela) and briefly becoming her lover. De Lempicka was working on a copy of Beautiful Rafaela when she died in 1980. Inspired by these bare facts, Avery (The Teahouse Fire) has crafted an evocative, heart-cutting work that imagines the relationship between artist and model. Traveling from New York to Italy for an arranged marriage, Rafaela escapes from her chaperone and, "trad[ing] sex for a train ticket," heads for Paris. There she's gloriously free but living on the edge; when de Lempicka finds her, she's gone to borrow money from a street-walking friend. Avery does a lot for us here, creating two stunning characters—the earthy, heartfelt Rafaela and the conniving de Lempicka—then shows us both the heat of their relationship and the very act of creating art. In the bargain, we get Paris itself, particularly demimonde and artistic, boiling over with possibility. VERDICT Absorbing, affecting, and agitating—you'll end up wanting to punch de Lempicka—this work is highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 7/5/11.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Avery (The Teahouse Fire, 2006, etc.) is right in step with the current publishing trend toward romantic yet literary historical fiction with this imagined romance between the cubist/art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka and the model Rafaela, who appears in six of her paintings. The first, longer section of the novel is told from half-Italian-American Catholic/half-Jewish Rafaela Fano's viewpoint and set among the sexually fluid ex-pats of Paris in 1927. On her way from the Bronx to an arranged marriage in Italy at age 17, Rafaela runs away to Paris, where she quickly becomes part of the demimonde. Rafaela meets 27-year-old Tamara de Lempicka in the Bois de Boulogne (a factual encounter), and Tamara takes her home to pose. Already an established painter, Tamara is an aristocratic émigré from Poland by way of Russia and the mother of a young daughter. She is also going through a difficult divorce and has had affairs with men and women. Soon Tamara and Rafaela are lovers. Rafaela has been paid for sex by numerous men, but for the first time she falls in love. What Tamara feels is less clear because she lives within a self-invented, larger-than-life persona. She is a serious artist and her sexual passion for Rafaela seems real, but so is her passion for money. Soon she embroils Rafaela in a scheme that pits two wealthy art buyers in a competition over who gets the second version of her painting "Beautiful Rafaela," a painting she promises Rafaela she will never sell. The novel's shorter second section shifts to 1980 Mexico, where the aged Tamara spends her last days. Steeped in largely feminine/lesbian sensuality and peopled by famous and cultural figures of pre–World War II Europe, the novel is a dark, sexy romp, although it ends in a disappointing whimper.
The Barnes & Noble Review
There are books –– and thank heaven for them –– that refuse to accommodate themselves to our mundane lives. The reader must squeeze into theirs. Forget about the deadline and the groceries, the conference call and the laundry. The year is 1917 and you are going to Paris. Magnolia trees, a jewel–green motorcar, a woman with a dog –– it's the Bois de Boulogne, and you don't have a thing to wear.

Which is fine, tant pis, because at least a third of the sultry novel The Last Nude takes place in the altogether. The author herself credits a nude as inspiration: when Ellis Avery first saw Beautiful Rafaela, a 1927 oil painting by Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka, at a show at the Royal Academy in London in 2004, she found it, as she says, "hair–raisingly sexy." The painting is rich –– dark, moody; the woman's skin glows, and every edge is round and graceful. She fills the canvas, leaving no room for any other thought. It is one of those unforgettable paintings that shifts a viewer into its own emotional space.

Avery, unlike de Lempicka, has only words, a linear array of black–and–white symbols. A gifted writer, she polishes those words until they lift into color, and strings them like beads that pulse with rhythm and movement. Playing throughout her story with the contrast between beautiful and ugly, good and venal, amusing and pitiful, Avery seduces just as effectively as her beguiling subjects. We are, as they say, putty in her hands.

Beauitful Rafaela was, in real life and in the novel, a seventeen–year–old girl de Lempicka (then twenty–seven) met in the Bois de Boulogne –– the park has long doubled as a red–light district –– in 1927. She asked Rafaela to pose for her, and the two women fell in love. Avery dials the story back to trace Rafaela's route from America to Paris as a refugee from a planned engagement: her mother and stepfather, back in the Bronx, have arranged a marriage to a young Italian boy and booked Rafaela's passage to Italy. Already beautiful at sixteen, she meets an older man on the ship and flees with him to Paris, land of Chanel dresses, the Ritz, and Sylvia Beach's bookstore. But once the relationship fizzles, Rafaela must live by her wits, doing things for money she would prefer not to do and trying to hold on to both dignity and spirit. She sews her own clothes and, fully disowned by her mother, knows she has to make it on her own.

Enter de Lampicka, a beautiful, greyhound–thin, golden–skinned Polish countess who is estranged from her husband and living with her young daughter, painting six hours a day and trolling the parks and streets of Paris for models. She offers Rafaela 100 francs, takes her back to her studio in the Seventh Arrondissement –– and the Bronx recedes for all of us.

The paintings she makes of Rafaela become the talk of the town and are highly, obsessively coveted by wealthy aristocrats and government officials. There is too much absinthe, too much style, too much money, and too much sex: emotions harden into things, things that can be purchased, a transaction that does not have much to do with love.

And here, something interesting happens between the reader and the novel. The literary pheromones that propel a reader through the novel's first delicious scenes dissipate slightly but noticeably. The narrative gets between us and the beauty we were originally bewitched by, and it looks flimsy in the cold light of day. We long to scurry back into the painting, a shelter from ugliness (laundry, conference calls, and traffic jams). We resent the story, and it does not hold up well under our resentment.

The relationship between Tamara and Rafaela gets tarnished, and poof! –– they are less interesting. Waiter, another glass of champagne! We swan off to another corner of the mirrored room. Avery tries to lure us back with chocolates and cognac, a Saarinen table, but it's too late. Tamara is getting old and paranoid. Rafaela has moved on. "The year my husband left –– the year I feared poverty most," thinks Tamara many years later, "was the freest year of my life, and the day I met Rafaela was the freest day. A man could find what he wanted in the Bois as a matter of course, but I was a woman, and I got her in my car anyway."

Avery captures that freedom, and the abandon that follows. It is enough. It is enough.

Susan Salter Reynolds is a writer and book critic. She is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594486470
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 12/31/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 940,194
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Ellis Avery
ELLIS AVERY is the author of The Teahouse Fire, winner of Lambda, Ohioana, and American Library Association awards, and the personal narrative The Smoke Week, about life in downtown Manhattan during and after 9/11/01. She teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and lives in New York City.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2011

    Last Nude

    Paris in the Twenties comes alive in this beatiful novel.

    3 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 1, 2013

    Enjoyable reading

    I am a great admirer of her art. It was fascinating to read about the person in some of de Lempicka's most fampus paintings.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2013

    To k

    Come on

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2012

    Interesting!

    Well written and kept my attention up to and including the very last page. While none of the characters were appealing (a bit on the sleazy side, questionable morals, etc.), I nevertheless found myself interested in their thinking and doing. If you are a reader who doesn't have to love the people about whom you are reading, then you will find this a very interesting book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 3, 2012

    Should have ended sooner

    The Last Nude is another example of taking a good story and stretching it to a novel. The story begins as Raphaela’s story and it is an enjoyable read. Ellis Avery lures the reader into Raphaela’s life and creates empathy for the character.

    The book was difficult to put down through the first chapters, then, in explicably Avery changes the novel to Tamara’s story. With the shift the book was no longer compelling. In fact, it became quite difficult to continue reading as not only was Tamara an unlikeable character, but, Avery’s writing style seemed to slip as well.

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  • Posted March 28, 2012

    A really good read

    I enjoy The Last Nude immensely. Both the main characters were well-drawn and the combination of the art/art scene, and the coming out/love story drew me right in and kept me riveted through the book. I wish it had been longer.

    The only minor disappointment was the switch in point of view in the last chapter.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2012

    Not your mother's book

    Lots of dialogue and drama. Not just the history of a painter whom I have come to admire, but more the exciting adventures of a nineteen year old Italian-American castoff. Entertaining, raw, and unashamed of the human flesh. Not your mother's book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2012

    Bella Rafaela

    Even moreso, that there is no closure for Tamara. Great read.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2012

    Boring

    Biggest waste of time and money invested in a book in years. Wish I wouldve paid attention to others negative comments on this one.

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  • Posted February 14, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Brought this book with me to Paris...

    And I was not disappointed.

    Ms. Avery brought the art and beauty of Paris alive, while balancing out that dreamy image with a reality of a young woman struggling to make her way.

    I did enjoy the first half of the book much more than the second half, but that being said, I was ecstatic to have a chance to read this book as soon as it came out. And, what better place to do it than Paris where I could almost imagine the exact scenes taking place.

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    Posted January 22, 2012

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    Posted January 29, 2012

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    Posted January 6, 2012

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    Posted January 13, 2012

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    Posted January 25, 2012

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    Posted April 15, 2014

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    Posted February 12, 2012

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    Posted February 3, 2012

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    Posted January 7, 2012

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