A Bittersweet Rendezvous

by Ellis Avery
Riverhead Books, 310 pp.,
$25.95 hardcover

On a warm July day in Paris, 1927, a fashionably dressed woman approaches a teenage American girl, Rafaela Fano, in the Bois de Boulogne. “I only met Tamara de Lempicka because I needed a hundred frances. This was sixteen years ago,” Rafaela states. De Lempicka asks to paint her, Rafaela accepts and climbs into the artist’s Bugatti: “bottle green, a praying mantis, a cunning toy.” They drive to de Lempicka’s studio in the posh Seventh Arrondissement and begin a series of paintings, as well as a love affair which ushers in Rafaela’s bittersweet foray into womanhood, one that will haunt both women for life.

Ellis Avery’s second novel follows her debut, The Teahouse Fire, both set against historical backdrops, the latter focused on 19th century Japan. Avery’s debut garnered numerous accolades, including the Lambda Literary Award, and praise for her vivid depictions in rendering a complex, believable historical setting. From the beginning, The Last Nude does not disappoint in Avery’s command of language, her ability to nail a character in a flash of fresh detail, or the streets and objects which fall across her narrator’s gaze—consider the metaphor of Bugatti-as-praying mantis as referenced above. In that deft, succinct phrase, Avery alerts us to de Lempicka’s manipulative dark side along with the narrator’s naïveté as she climbs into the motorcar, an omen of the trouble to come.

Avery is especially adept at depicting sex scenes in a clear-eyed manner and which, through her use of spare prose, doesn’t feel gratuitous, hardly an easy feat with subject matter as sultry as two women falling in love while creating a series of famous nudes. Consider this early exchange between Tamara and Rafaela: “She lay beside me on the couch, just as golden as I’d imagined her, her pubic hair a leonine brown. ‘Do you know what to do with me?’ she asked. I had never put my fingers inside a woman before. ‘Is there a trick to it?’ I asked. ‘No.’” So, too, are the depictions of Rafaela’s ventures into prostitution, as in the following line from a scene where she beds an elderly man at the Ritz: “Though his fist worked the wattled misery in his lap, only his face was taut, a mask: when he met my eyes, a smile dribbled out to greet me.” In matters of sex, Avery is true to the moment and the characters, her tone unapologetic and unflinching whether shining light on the beautiful or the ugly.

Rafaela’s increasingly fervent affection for de Lempicka, her wish for the two to create a future together like other notable female couples in their midst—Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier—is at odds with de Lempicka’s ruthless determination to secure her place in the art world by whatever means necessary. The main plot progresses via well-laid twists and turns concerning the two wealthy patrons vying for de Lempicka’s work, resulting in a character-driven climax that satisfies in both surprise and plausibility. Less well-executed, perhaps, is the subplot concerning Rafaela and her friend Gin. When Gin becomes pregnant by her married lover, Avery devotes numerous scenes to a concerned Rafaela taking steps to help her friend. Yet midway through the novel, this subplot drops off the page, and we are left to wonder—and worry for her friend, as Rafaela had been (“What was Gin going to do with a baby?”). At the end a single sentence finally gives us the answer, but it falls short and comes too late.

At every turn, Avery’s vibrant sensory detail keeps alive the illusion of a 1920s resurrected Paris. Rafaela narrates: “One street over, I cut back into the neighborhood I’d left and walked quickly down a block of hard-faced girls wearing little under the coats they opened, cackling at the men who walked by: rue Saint-Denis. ‘Don’t you like me?’ a girl called after the man walking ahead of me. ‘Well, why not?’ she screeched. ‘Pédé!’ I pulled my coat tighter and cut back toward the hum of the sewing machines.” Yet occasionally, the interactions with some of the historical figures who double as secondary characters feel contrived and have less to do with the plot than reminding the reader of the small circle in which the artists and literati travel. Rafaela’s visits to Shakespeare and Company are rife with references to James Joyce. Name-dropping of the usual suspects—Pablo Picasso, André Gide, etc, abounds. “While the salon was crowded—in five minutes I spotted Nancy Cunard, bedecked in ivory, Tallulah Bankhead in a hundred ropes of pearls, Filippo Marinetti, and sere, sculptural Jean Cocteau—the dining room was even denser with people,” observes Rafaela. Other famous characters, such as the boxer-later-turned-Nazi-conspirator Vi Morris, work themselves more integrally into the plot.

Perhaps the depictions of Jazz Age celebrities wouldn’t strike such a familiar chord if not for the plethora of books and films centered on that city and time period. In roughly the past year we have both Paula McClain’s novel The Paris Wife and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a film in which the comedy succeeds, to a great extent, in poking fun at the notion of the Jazz Age as a sort of cultural fetish. No wonder the salons and soirées feel crowded, the historical context from which Avery’s narrative springs forth coming across as somewhat contrived: Jazz Age Paris is a bit claustrophobic of late. Yet this is the climate in which The Last Nude, a novel of literary merit and often a page-turner, must cement itself in the cultural milieu.

But it is precisely the novel’s particular preoccupation, that of the charismatic, passionate, and contradictory de Limpicka and the infamous yet mysterious subject of her most critically acclaimed painting, Beautiful Rafaela, which the New York Times called “one of the most important nudes of the 20th century,” that lures the reader in and resonates beyond the page.  Avery isn’t afraid to take risks in subject matter or form; the choice to shift from Rafaela as first-person narrator to de Lempicka for the final section, fast-forwarding to Tamara on the final day of her life, ultimately works, a tricky move after being immersed in the voice of Rafaela up until this point. If the bewitching Rafaela succeeds in drawing us into the novel, Tamara de Limpicka’s present tense narrative, brimming with the same lush, concrete language but imbued with the dauntless obstinacy of the eccentric painter, carries the final, haunting notes. “That summer is now,” the elderly de Lempicka says as the novel approaches conclusion. “Rafaela shimmers, alive, as if she were about to open up her eyes, sit up, speak. What would she say? I grip the table, suddenly afraid. Her eyes would be pits of fire. Her voice would be the voice of lions, her breath hot tar and wet copper.” Avery’s fictionalized biography is just as brilliantly alive.