Saturday, November 19, 2011
The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery
Ellis Avery's novel The Last Nude is an imagined episode within the life of artist Tamara de Lempicka, centered around one of her most famous paintings, "La Bella Rafaela." No one now actually knows who this beautiful woman was, except for her first name.
In this novel, Rafaela Fono spent her first sixteen years in the Bronx, New York, the daughter of Italian immigrants. Her natural father dies when she is young, her mother remarries, and has three sons with her second husband. Rafaela is a teenager in high school who is also charged with household chores, caring for her little brothers, and learning her aunt and uncle's sewing trade, but when Rafaela's mother notices the way her second husband is looking at her daughter, it is suddenly time for Rafaela to get out of the picture.
So begins Rafaela's story. Accompanied by her crabby, cruel paternal grandmother, she is locked in a cabin on board a ship sailing back to Italy, where she is affianced to a nephew of her stepfather's. She doesn't get to finish high school, she doesn't want to get married at sixteen, and she barely speaks Italian. It is on one of the last nights of this voyage that Rafaela gets a chance to escape, to take control of her own life, and she seizes that opportunity, but it comes at a dangerous price.
Without spoiling too much of the story, Rafaela makes her way to Paris, where she begins to slide into prostitution, until a chance meeting with the artist Tamara De Lempicka changes her prospects. Still just seventeen, Rafaela falls in love with Tamara, and the two have an intense affair.
However, the two make good foils; Rafaela innocent and loyal, Tamara jaded and cynical. While the young Rafaela is introduced to the world of art, lavish parties, and a bohemian lifestyle, Tamara is not only painting, but using her coy charms on potential buyers to secure the best position she can for herself, while artfully keeping her young model in love and happy.
Eventually, the love affair comes to an end in a betrayal engineered by Tamara's greed and selfishness. Most of this story is narrated by Rafaela, and her pain is very real. The last few chapters are told from Tamara's point of view, when the reader gets a glimpse into the past life that has badly damaged this artist, molding her into the unlikable character of this novel. We also sympathize with her neglected daughter and all those who must put up with Tamara as she becomes an aging diva.
Ellis Avery paints a detailed 1920s Paris in this intriguing, engaging novel. Thank you for the freebie, I most certainly enjoyed it.