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The Last Nude

1 rating: 3.0
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A Q&A between Emma Donoghue and Ellis Avery, author of The Last Nude    Emma Donoghue: What about this second novel--a technique, or a subject--was a stretch for you? Ellis Avery: My first novel, The Teahouse Fire, was about the tea ceremony … see full wiki

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Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
1 review about The Last Nude

Genius Pays Its Price

  • Jan 19, 2012
In "The Last Nude," author Ellis Avery might be offering a fictional backdrop to the birthing of artist Tamara de Lempicka's famous canvas of "La Belle Rafaela" but she also explores the drive of any artist to feed, incarnate and satisfy the creative demon within even if it means resorting to manipulation and deceit.

Wisely Avery uses a first person narrative to convey the almost virginal yearning of her main character. Barely seventeen, Rafaela has escaped the tedium of an arranged marriage by bartering her body for favor. Although saddened and hardened by what she must do to survive in 1920s Paris, "la Belle" sustains a child's wonder at true love and emotional responses that belie her years and her inexperience with ruthless ambition. When she meets the artist, Rafaela falls in love, wanting to believe in the fairly tale of happily-ever-after even though she instinctually knows Lempicka's self-promoting activities are not triggered by pure romance. Avery successfully fleshes out the spontaneous desire and happy insouciance of a vulnerable teenager who stumbles haphazardly into a love that is nuanced with ulterior motives.

Likewise, Avery's portrait of Tamara de Lempicka as a woman/artist who will do all and everything to market herself at the expense of anyone around her is crafted with sophisticated understanding. At the novel's end, Lempicka, on the day of her death, is allowed to speak in her own defense; she justifies her actions and bemoans the innocence of a love she lost and never experienced again. Her tone is world-weary, yet threaded with a wistfulness she desires only to recapture by painting the once innocent and unknowing muse just one last time--think of Colin Firth's Vermeer capturing Greit's succulent beauty before it is plucked by her intended husband or the despicable Pieter Van Ruijven in Girl With a Pearl Earring.

As a narrative, the novel wanes in strength in direct proportion to the unraveling of Lempicka's plot to propel herself into the art world's hall of fame. The tone imbued with a heavy bittersweet fatality creates a somber atmosphere despite the descriptions of decadent Parisian post World War One life. Undertones of class-consciousness and anti-Semitism cloak the overall feel in more darkness while the nebulous denouement regarding Rafaela's eventual life-after-Lempicka only adds to the sense of inner struggle and regret.

Bottom line? "The Last Nude" by Eliis Avery depicts the catch-22 of the artist who desires fame and must prostitute and exchange integrity for any foothold. Avery does a fine job with little historical information in crafting the backstory to the painting "La Belle Rafaela." Her ability to bring to life Lempicka's ruthless drive and its effect on a vulnerable young girl is etched in sadness that will permeate the read with a tone of despair. Lesbian relationships are a major theme in this novel as are the promiscuous activities of the Roaring 20s. Recommended along with Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara De Lempicka to see the actual paintings that rockstar Madonna collects and has featured in some of her popular hits.
Diana Faillace Von Behren

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