I picked up Ellis Avery’s latest novel The Last Nude after reading Danika’s glowing review of it 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 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 sink into and love.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 bythem 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 eyeshadow 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; this section is told 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.