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The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
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The Last Nude (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Ellis Avery

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2493746,085 (3.48)21
Member:CaseyStepaniuk
Title:The Last Nude
Authors:Ellis Avery
Info:Riverhead Trade (2012), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:american, historical, read, fiction, bisexual, queer, class, jewish

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The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (2012)

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The Last Nude tells the story of the painter Tamara de Lempicka, a Polish aristocrat, and her relationship with Rafaela Fono, the Italian-American girl who modeled for de Lempicka's most celebrated paintings.[return][return]Most of the story is told through the voice of Rafaela, a half-Jewish teenager, raised in New York City, who winds up penniless on the streets of Paris after fleeing an arranged marriage. Prostitution is the only prospect for Rafaela until a chance encounter with Tamara de Lempicka leads, not only to a stunningly successful artistic partnership, but to a torrid love affair between artist and model.[return][return]The artistic milieu of Paris in the 1920s is vividly and convincingly portrayed. De Lempicka moved among a circle of artists, writers, migrés, and adventurers who experimented as boldly with drugs and sex as they did in their chosen art. But greed, jealousy and betrayal were ever at hand and cast a shadow over Rafaela and Tamara just as the rise of Fascism was casting a shadow over Europe.[return][return]The final pages of the novel give a retrospective from Tamara's point of view during her life's final years in Cuernavaca, Mexico. They complete a moving portrait of this glamorous, haughty, but troubled artist. ( )
  Dolmance | Oct 29, 2015 |
Extremely well-researched. Lots of name-dropping and historical detail. Too much even. I could never get past the feeling of reading an extremely well-researched book. The magic of the story eluded me--perhaps because I didn't empathize with Rafaela's slavish adoration of de Lempicka whose sense of entitlement and egoism left me cold. ( )
  brocade | Oct 18, 2013 |
Several people had recommended this book to me, as I tend to be interested in stories set in France. I'm glad they did -- it was a good story. I found Rafaela particularly fascinating, though I didn't really care for Tamara.

I found it odd that there was a part two, with Tamara's POV later in life. I think it would have been just as well to end the book with the end of part one. Part two seemed unnecessary, and IMO, didn't add to the story.

Excellent book, well worth the read. ( )
  alyslinn | May 25, 2013 |
Fairly lightweight, sometimes a bit soap-opera-y, but fun enough if you like reading about the artist/expat world of 1920s Paris. Also, I thought she did a really good job of showing what people will do for money, and why, and making it very human and relatable. ( )
  kgib | Mar 31, 2013 |
I picked up Ellis Avery’s latest novel The Last Nude after reading Danika’s glowing review of it on the lesbrary earlier this year. It’s not every author who can claim your lifelong allegiance after you’ve read only one of her works, but I agree with Danika that Avery is one of these writers and that reading The Last Nude is enough to convince you. This historical novel, set in Paris in the decadent 1920s period between the two world wars, is an easy book to love and sink into. From the first unassuming sentence (“I only met Tamara de Lempicka because I needed a hundred francs”), The Last Nude is captivating and delightful. The writing is exquisite; the characterization rich; and the setting wonderfully and lovingly rendered in superb detail.

Just because the novel is beautiful, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t also without its delicious complexities. We are introduced to the whirlwind environment of 20s Paris, in all its queer, smoky glory through the eyes of Rafaela Fano, an Italian-American Jew who is also experiencing it for the first time. Rafaela (her actual last name isn’t known) is a real historical person about whom we don’t know much except she was Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka’s model and inspiration for some of her most arresting works, including La Belle Rafaela, which graces the cover of the novel. Rafaela is both sweetly naïve and street-wise, having survived her family’s attempt to arrange her marriage at age sixteen by trading sex for passage to Paris. She’s survived in the city thus far by doing sex work, sometimes in more explicit scenarios than others; Rafaela is on the brink of a so-called respectable job at a department store when Tamara, seduced by her beauty on the street, recruits the young woman to model for her.

Tamara, as you might have guessed, is unbelievably sexy and glamorous; of course, she’s also a supremely talented artist with an insatiable appetite for art, wealth, and power. Rafaela falls for Tamara, hard. You know from early on, despite the fact that the story is related to us through Rafaela’s perspective, that Tamara’s motives are more complicated and less wholesome than Rafaela’s young, innocent heart wants to believe. In fact, it’s not just Tamara, it’s the whole circle Rafaela is introduced to: we enter the exotic world of the queer, artsy, bohemian population and are by turns charmed and appalled by them just as Rafaela is. Like us 21st century readers, Rafaela is a stranger to this world, its hopeful possibilities, and its hidden sinister underbelly.

Despite the sense of apprehension you feel knowing that Tamara and Rafaela’s love affair is doomed, Tamara offers something to Rafaela that is priceless: she gives Rafaela her own body back and opens up her sexuality. After the first time they make love, Rafaela recalls:
“And suddenly I remembered a day when I was very small, before my brothers came along. When my mother went out for groceries, I slopped … oil on the banister and slid down. I climbed those stairs again and again, to get that feeling: how slick my knickers got, how distinctly I could feel the spreading wings of my little figa, how the shock of bliss pleated through me like lightning. I had forgotten this kind of eagerness until now, as my body sobbed into Tamara’s hand. Again, again! I wanted to crow. I was a giddy witch on a broomstick. I was a leaping dog. I was liquor; I was laughter; I was a sliding girl on a shining rail: something I’d forgotten how to be.”

Later on, Rafaela tells us how she has learned to love and revel in her body:

“Ever since my sixteenth birthday, my body had felt like a coin in an unfamiliar currency: small, shiny, and heavy, obviously of value to somebody, but not to me… My body felt coincidental to me—I could just as easily be a tree, a stone, a gust of wind. For so long, I still felt like the ten-year-old me, skinny as a last wafer of soap, needling through Washington Square on her way to Baxter Street. But my months with Tamara had worn away the lonely old questions and replaced them with a greed of my own: my body was just a fact, this night, a kind of euphoria. I coincided with it, and with the dancing crowd. Throbbing with the horns and drums, we formed a waterfall passing over a light, each of us a drop, a spark, bright, gone. The music danced us, and I knew it wouldn’t last, this body I’d learnt to love.”

If you’re at all familiar with famous lesbian/queer/bi expatriate women from this period, you’ll be delighted to see the literary couple Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, who ran successful bookstores and first published James Joyce’s Ulysses, function as Rafaela’s queer elders. Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas make appearances too, as well as Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and Violette Morris. If you don’t know who any of these women are, I suggest looking them up asap. Ah, if only I could time travel back to one of their parties and chat with them, wearing smoky black eye shadow and red lipstick, and smoking cigarettes out of a long classy holder without knowing the consequences.

The consequences of the way Tamara treats Rafaela don’t fully emerge until the second part of the book, much smaller than the first, and from the perspective of Tamara as an old woman. On the one hand, I felt robbed of the chance to see in her own words how Rafaela pulls herself up after Tamara’s betrayal and ‘follows her dreams.’ On the other, Avery had to do something to humanize Tamara for us, if only to complicate the view of her as a ruthless egotistical villain. Although I can’t say I was completely satisfied with Tamara’s atonement, I was glad in the end to know that Tamara did care for Rafaela, amidst her self-delusions and guilt. In a way, these revelations made the love story all the more tragic; they also made the novel even more complex, powerful, and poignant than it already was. This, considering The Last Nude is (lesbian) historical fiction at its finest, is quite an achievement. ( )
  CaseyStepaniuk | Dec 12, 2012 |
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Book description
A stunning story of love, sexual obsession, treachery, and tragedy, about an artist and her most famous muse in Paris between the world wars.

Paris, 1927. In the heady years before the crash, financiers drape their mistresses in Chanel, while expatriates flock to the avant-garde bookshop Shakespeare and Company. 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 halt a downward slide toward prostitution, 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.

Inspired by real events in de Lempicka's history, The Last Nude is a tour de force of historical imagination. Ellis Avery gives the reader a tantalizing window into a lost Paris, an age already vanishing as the inexorable forces of history close in on two tangled lives. Spellbinding and provocative, this is a novel about genius and craft, love and desire, regret and, most of all, hope that can transcend time and circumstance.
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"A stunning story of love, sexual obsession, treachery, and tragedy, about an artist and her most famous muse in Paris between the world wars. Paris, 1927. In the heady years before the crash, financiers drape their mistresses in Chanel, while expatriates flock to the avant-garde bookshop Shakespeare and Company. 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 halt a downward slide toward prostitution, 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. Inspired by real events in de Lempicka's history, The Last Nude is a tour de force of historical imagination. Ellis Avery gives the reader a tantalizing window into a lost Paris, an age already vanishing as the inexorable forces of history close in on two tangled lives. Spellbinding and provocative, this is a novel about genius and craft, love and desire, regret and, most of all, hope that can transcend time and circumstance. "-- "A novel by the author of The Teahouse Fire about an artist and a young American woman beginning in 1920's Paris"--… (more)

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