In 1927, Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempika meets American fledgling Rafaela Fano as she drives along Paris’ Boise de Boulogne. Dazzled as much by Tamara’s wealth as by her glamour, Rafaela goes home with her to pose for paintings in exchange for a much-needed one hundred francs. Ellis Avery’s sumptuous second novel, The Last Nude (Riverhead Books), imagines the life and death of Tamara and Rafaela’s relationship, which blooms from this historical chance encounter.
Avery weaves the story of a hot affair, a creative meeting of the minds, and also of the radiant and contagious deceit between these two women.
Despite Rafaela’s wish to earn just “enough money to be left alone,” she also admits that when she goes to work with Tamara, “Every time I took a pose that summer, it took me.”
But on the eve of their departure for a holiday vacation in Italy, when she is poised to punish Tamara for sleeping with another woman by stealing her most prized painting, a private copy of La Bella Rafaela, for the treacherous Baron Kuffner, Rafaela has a change of heart. “I didn’t care about Ira Perrot,” she says. “All I cared about was the look on Tamara’s face, as fierce and vulnerable as a wild bird in a trap. She hadn’t seen Kuffner’s wink. She hadn’t seen my throat tighten with horror at myself, at how badly I’d betrayed her. She only saw me. ‘Just two more hours,’ she mouthed. All she wanted to do was survive and get on that train with me. And all I wanted to do was to be worthy of her.”
Not so, for we learn that the duplicitous Tamara has prepared a guileful scheme of her own. With the tender assistance of infamous bookshop owner Sylvia Beach, and go-to friend Anson Hall, Rafaela is able to make a narrow recovery from the traumatic ruin of her relationship with Tamara.
The painting, La Bella Rafaela, spawned from Tamara and Rafaela’s romance, serves as a centerpiece against which all other works of art and all other relationships are compared throughout the story. It is the painting, in the end, which endures, retaining its purity and intrigue in the midst of a carnival of affairs and betrayals.
While the book begins as a passionate tale from the lush landscape of Paris in the 1920s, livened by entrancing sex scenes and seductive exchanges, the story takes a turn toward the fast-paced—morphing into a plot-driven whodunit, which will have readers asking whose allegiances are where and what will become of the beloved La Bella Rafaela.
The Last Nude
By Ellis Avery Riverhead Books Hardcover, 9781594488139, 320pp