There is a danger in writing historical fiction to drift into nostalgia and reference-spotting, to let recorded fact overwhelm human truth and forget that the names in the history books were once living breathing, screwing, screwed-up people. In her new novel “The Last Nude,” Ellis Avery vaults past those dangers to create a book so human it practically sweats with longing. Teenage Rafaela has fled an arranged marriage to Paris in the 1920s. When a series of calamitous twists leave her out of work and out of cash, she takes an offer to model for the painter Tamara de Lempicka—and it becomes so much more. Naive but sharp, the affair leads her into the cultural set of the time, holding rendezvous in Shakespeare & Co. to investigate her roommate’s supposed fiancée and flashing Jean Cocteau at a party. As she falls deeper in love with Tamara, so too does she fall for Paris and all the glamor and potential it holds for a young woman of the time.
The story is a compelling and vivid romance, but even more exhilarating is Avery’s prose. Through Rafaela, Paris becomes a sensual bouquet of sounds and flavors and textures. Even the nameless passers-by are infused with character through her sense of gesture and body language. All of this infuses Rafaela’s story with the wide-eyed energy of discovery and enchantment. So alive does the character of Rafaela come across, the book could almost be mistaken for her private diary, written in the fever pitch of unbridled love and romantic lust. But the novel is just that, a novel; fabricating a life behind the paintings of de Lempicka to imagine so much more of the woman who modeled for some of the artist’s most acclaimed works.
As in Avery’s previous novel “The Teahouse Fire,” the story is very driven. Characters in motion remain in motion, whether crossing the Boulevard du Montparnasse or yearning for an absent lover, and “Nude” hardly gives you a moment to catch your breath before the next social faux pas at a salon leads to a heartbreaking tryst in the pre-dawn hours. Ellis Avery has crafted a fine cognac of a novel that makes the heart ache with joy and the fingers grope for a paintbrush. (Greg Baldino)
“The Last Nude”
By Ellis Avery
Riverhead Hardcover, 320 pages, $26