The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
Author: Ellis Avery
Genre: Fiction (Historical / Paris / 1930s / Artist & Muse / Same-Sex Relationships / Historical Figure Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: Riverhead Hardcover (1/5/2012)
Source: The publisher
Did I finish?: Yes!
One-sentence summary: American expat Rafaela Fano becomes a model for avant-garde artist Tamara de Lempicka, and eventually her lover, in 1920s Paris.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover -- it's one of de Lempicka's portraits of Rafaela and the feel of it so captures the mood of the story. So perfect. I love the font used with my whole body.
I'm reminded of...: Emma Donoghue, Anaïs Nin, Sarah Waters
First line: I only met Tamara de Lempicka because I needed a hundred francs.
Do... I agree with New York Press that Ellis Avery is The Best Writer You've Never Heard of But Should Go Read Right Now?: YES. Where has she been all my life?! I'm a fan for life now!
Did... I miss my subway stop twice while reading this?: YES. All hail the return of the so-awesome-I-lose-track-of-reality read!
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, buy!
Why did I get this book?: I adore de Lempicka and I'm fascinated by that era/circle in Paris. This was a no-brianer for me!
Review: I loved this book. And in that way when I'm totally smitten, I'm not even sure I can compose complete sentences explaining why I loved this book so. In short: the writing is gorgeous, the romance sensual and sexy, and the characters sketched quickly but warmly despite their flaws.
First, the setting. I'm mad for Paris in the late '20s and I love the circle of artists the novel focuses on; Avery creates the ambiance without bogging down the story in details. There's a mix of hard scrabble poverty and excessive wealth, titles and nobodies, post-war and pre-war. The novel references de Lempicka's art from 1927 on, which can be seen online -- and should, because they're gorgeous. And sexy.
Second, the characters. I really fell in love with everyone, even the unappealing ones, the shameful ones, the shameless ones, the selfish jerks and the too-saintly-to-be true mouses. They felt real to me, even though Avery doesn't spend tons of time describing them, either. (I'm afraid I'm making this sound like the narrative is thin, but it isn't!) Through snappy dialogue and Rafaela's viewpoint (and for a brief time, Tamara's) we see meet these rapacious souls (food, money, sex, artistic inspiration, safety -- the need various, but there's unceasing hunger!). Shamefully (?), I liked Tamara despite her cruel, predatory, and selfish behavior, because Avery made her so real for me. The manipulative, passionate woman we see through Rafaela's eyes tells her side of the story, briefly, late in life.
And finally, the writing. This novel races even though it isn't a fast-paced or intricately plotted novel. The hot burn of desire propels the story; like Rafaela impatient for the day to end so she can go to Tamara, I was impatient for the next liaison, the next drink, the next painting. I ate up every word because each sentence fulfilled and left me yearning. The end of the book killed me dead in the best way, oh-so-bittersweet and sad and yummy.
For those uncomfortable with sex, this novel might be too spicy. Avery writes some of the sexiest lesbian sex I've read in a novel in a long time, and while it isn't graphic, it also isn't discreet. The sex is part of the story, like the paintings, like Paris, and feels right, not gratuitous.
I'm making myself want to read this all over again. Right now.
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I'm excited to offer a copy of The Last Nude to one lucky reader, thanks to the publisher. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, closes 2/3.