Sunday, February 12, 2012

266 (2012 #11). The Last Nude

by Ellis Avery

This book is a fictional story of the real-life Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka and the model for a number of her paintings, including both versions of La Belle Rafaela, The Pink Tunic, and (probably) High Summer, Nude with Dove, and Reclining Nude with Book, as well as The Dream (pictured on the book's cover), a girl named Rafaela.

According to a biography written by de Lempicka's daughter Kizette, the artist met the real Rafaela on a walk in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris around 1927.  She was struck by Rafaela's beauty and asked her to model for her.  One of the last paintings she was working on before her death in 1980 was a replica of La Belle Rafaela.

Ellis Avery built her novel around these two points.  She fleshes out Rafaela, making her a Jewish-Catholic Italian-American 17-year-old escaping an arranged marriage by linking up with another man on her voyage to Sicily.  She's in Paris trying to make it on her own and avoid prostitution when de Lempicka approaches her.  The bisexual artist introduces Rafaela to the pleasures of lesbian love, and Rafaela falls in love with her.

Part One of the book, told in first person by Rafaela, covers about 250 pages, from the beginning to the end of their relationship, as well as Rafaela's back-story.  Part Two of the book, about 65 pages, is told from de Lempicka's first-person viewpoint, on the last day of her life in 1980, working on the copy of her most famous painting and looking back at her time with Rafaela.

While the relationship with Rafaela is conjecture, Avery has incorporated various other real people from that time in Paris, both from de Lempicka's life (her husbands, daughter, and various people she painted), as well as Sylvia Beach, an American expatriate who founded the Shakespeare and Company English book store and lending library in Paris and published James Joyce's Ulysses.

Avery also has Ernest Hemingway hidden in her novel.  In an interview, she says "my Anson Hall—and Anson is Hemingway’s paternal grandfather’s first name, Hall is his maternal grandfather’s last name—is the person that Hemingway would have turned out to have become if he’d never gotten over the loss of his suitcase with all his manuscripts in 1922....Yet he got over it and went on to write the really beautiful work of his 20s. I think that a lot of other people wouldn’t have gotten over that loss....My Hemingway figure is the one who never got over that loss and whom he might have turned out to have become."  The fictional Anson plays a key role in the fictional Rafaela's life.

Avery does such a convincing job making Rafaela come alive (and makes her so appealing) that I found myself searching for more information to see if there was anything out there about the real model (no luck so far).  While de Lempicka is not particularly likable in this book, her narrative provides some insights into her behavior.

I read an uncorrected proof, so perhaps this is in the final edition, but I do wish the author had listed some of her sources for information on de Lempicka, as well as a listing of all the art works referred to in the story. While I'm not too crazy about most of her paintings of Rafaela, I thought High Summer (pictured left) was gorgeous, and many of de Lempicka's other Art Deco works are stunning as well.

This book does have some highly-charged erotic scenes, so it may not be suitable for all readers, but I do recommend it.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[This uncorrected proof was obtained through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.] 

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