Book Review: Ellis Avery, The Last Nude

I've been a little caught up in other things to post much these days, but I am more or less keeping up with the reading. Here's a book I reviewed for the Bookshelf, the best independent bookstore in Guelph. They're about to launch Bookshelf 2.0, a website that'll include brief reviews from readers. The version of The Last Nude that I read was the uncorrected proof.

The story is set in Paris. Jazz plays on the radio and shakes up the ethnicities. Women wear their hair short. On the Left Bank writers and artists mingle over shots of absinthe.

Driving a Bugatti, the Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka meets the practical Jewish Italo-American Rafaela. Young and penniless, living in semi-prostitution, Rafaela agrees to model for Tamara and soon the women are in bed together. Thus begins Ellis Avery's turbulent historical fiction about the artist and the muse.

I enjoyed how Avery described the colours, the patrons, and the exhibitions of the painter's world. I also liked how she greyed the image of the creative process, how Tamara and Rafaela loved each other, for a time, but also exploited one another for personal gain.

Three quarters through, the novel shifts narrator from Rafaela to Tamara. Tamara is crankier than Rafaela depicts her, though I found her voice, as an artist, the most convincing. She says, "The thing is, I dared to make new work, and this is a world that rewards artists for rolling the same little scarab's ball of dung up the same hill all their lives." Every artist can sympathize with that. 

While the book read quickly and its premise is strong, it didn't capture my attention as I'd hoped.  The sexual tension between Tamara and Rafaela dissipated fast and the barriers you might expect from an affair of this kind, even in the liberated 1920s, were inexistent. Also a lack of poetry to the writing and a reliance on plot rather than character psychology struck me as awry.

Yet Avery explores the je ne sais quoi of the period from such a unique angle the novel is worth the read.