“Scintillating” and “titillating” are two words that barely begin to describe Ellis Avery’s beautifully written, erotically charged second novel, The Last Nude. Avery—previously acclaimed for her historical novel set in late 19th-century Japan, The Teahouse Fire—now successfully takes her readers to Paris in the roaring ’20s. There, she fictionalizes the true story of sensational Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and her rapport with 17-year-old model Rafaela, the inspiration behind one of the century’s most famous nude paintings, Beautiful Rafaela.
The Last Nude opens as Rafaela—an Italian Jewish immigrant from New York City—prowls the infamous Bois de Bologne neighborhood, in search of “financial aid.” We learn that Rafaela has escaped her strict Italian family with mere pennies in her pocket; she has been resorting to prostitution in order to make ends meet. Instead of a man, though, she encounters the extravagant Lempicka, a deposed Saint Petersburg countess who is currently raising her young daughter in France. Lempicka convinces Rafaela to model nude for her, and it is there in her salon that Lempicka’s best work is produced, along with the burgeoning of a passionate—and somewhat hidden—love affair.
Avery weaves historical fact with electrically charged narrative, creating scenarios in which Lempicka and Rafaela cavort with Sylvia Beach (owner of Shakespeare & Company, Paris’ famous English bookstore), Beach’s partner Adrienne Monnier (co-publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses), and boxer-turned-Nazi-collaborator Violette Morris (to name a few). As Lempicka’s paintings generate buzz in the art world, Rafaela finds herself falling deeper for the unobtainable, recently divorced painter who is hiding a few secrets of her own.
Though the book’s final section (told from Lempicka’s point of view) feels like something of an afterthought, it is fascinating to observe the once-powerful painter, now in her 90s and obsessed with memories of Rafaela. Filled with fabulous literary anecdotes and characters that seem to leap off the page, The Last Nude is a novel perfect for lovers of the 1920s, of Paris or simply of love stories.