During the 1920s and '30s, the Polish-Russian painter Tamara de Lempicka was a sensation in Paris for her hyperrealistic art deco nudes, her Greta Garbo good looks and her scandalous bisexual liaisons. Her bold, stylized portraits brought her notoriety and wealth. Today, some of them are in the collections of Jack Nicholson and Madonna. Her 1927 painting of a sultry Italian-American prostitute sold at auction in November for $8.48 million.
In a stroke of felicitous timing, this painting, Le Reve (Rafaela sur fond vert), graces the cover of Ellis Avery's new novel, The Last Nude, a fictionalized biography of Lempicka. As in her first novel, The Teahouse Fire, set in Japan in the late 19th century, Avery deftly recreates a lost period. Here, she embellishes the details of Lempicka's yearlong affair with Rafaela Fano, the 17-year-old, dark-eyed beauty on the novel's cover, whom Lempicka painted several times.
The first and longest part of the novel is told from Rafaela's point of view. Rafaela, who grew up in the Bronx and is now making ends meet by sleeping with Spanish grandfathers, doesn't need coaxing to get into the glamorous blond's green Bugatti. She finds herself whisked away to Lempicka's studio, where the artist seduces her almost immediately.
The narrative turns on complications that arise when two of her suitors vie for Lempicka's Rafaela paintings. Intertwined subplots involve both Rafaela's California roommate and a former Chicago sportswriter who becomes involved in one of the rivals' stratagems.
The novel's final, short section is told from Lempicka's perspective. She's in her 80s now, living in Cuernavaca, Mexico, reliving the triumphs of her early career and bemoaning the changing aesthetic that cast her out of the artistic mainstream. With unsteady hands, she's attempting to paint a facsimile of one of the signature Rafaelas that brought her renown more than 50 years ago.
The book suffers a bit from a whiff of artificiality, perhaps because of Avery's desire to evoke the campiness of the period. And it's too bad the publisher didn't include reproductions of Lempicka's paintings, which Avery so skillfully describes. This is, however, a compulsively readable novel that brings to life a diva whose biography is as titillating as her paintings.