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Editorial Reviews Review

A Q&A between Emma Donoghue and Ellis Avery, author of The Last Nude

Ellis Avery

Emma Donoghue: What about this second novel--a technique, or a subject--was a stretch for you?

Ellis Avery: My first novel, The Teahouse Fire, was about the tea ceremony of Meiji-era Japan. Because the subject matter was one most American readers know little to nothing about, I felt an almost missionary obligation to offer the reader everything I knew about that world--to lecture, really--and the book is paced accordingly.

My second novel, The Last Nude, takes place in Paris between the wars, a setting about which most readers know at least a little, and many readers know far more than I. It isn’t news that flappers listened to jazz in the twenties, or that Europe in the forties was a bad place to be if you were Jewish. This time around, I had to learn how not to lecture but to converse, how to give the reader the pleasure of supplying missing information, how to leave things out.

The result of leaving things out is, I hope, a more fast-paced novel than my first. I went into this book thinking about the various pitfalls artists can encounter--surfeit in Tamara de Lempicka’s case, loss in Anson Hall’s, history in Rafaela Fano’s--and I knew that if I was writing a novel about something as un-American as failure, I should at least try to make it sexy and suspenseful.

Donoghue: Between the moment you first thought of writing The Last Nude and the moment you finished it, what in the story or in your conception of Tamara and Rafaela changed most?

Avery: At first, I had no idea I would wind up writing sixty pages in the first person from Tamara’s point of view. As I discovered a year and a half after having done so, adding her voice meant that, as Tamara, I could skip over things that, as Rafaela, I would have needed to expand on. To that end, I condensed 110 pages from Rafaela’s point of view into two sentences from Tamara’s, resulting in a leaner if somewhat darker book.

The other thing that changed most is that I initially imagined an unabashedly happy ending for Rafaela: I saw her in California, living with a nice woman she’d met while studying the bodywork techniques pioneered by Ida Rolf. Groovy, huh? This ending was total fantasy, extraneous to the central action of the story, and very like the ending of my first novel, The Teahouse Fire. That novel takes place in the Victorian period, and offers a self-consciously Victorian ending: Good is rewarded, love comes at last. Most of the action of The Last Nude takes place in 1927, so ultimately it felt wrong to force a Victorian ending onto a Jazz Age novel. What’s more, in the next decades, so many Jews were killed in Europe that to report Rafaela’s survival without making the story of how she survived the focus of the book would be to disrespect the millions who died.

Donoghue: At what points did you find you had to change a fact in order to make a better fiction?

Emma Donoghue

Avery: First, if Tamara’s apartment and the train station had been on the same side of the Seine, there would have been no need for Rafaela to cross the river on a crucial occasion toward the end of the book. For that reason, although the biographical Tamara--whom I got to know through the excellent work of Laura Claridge--lived in what was at the time the newish-money Sixteenth Arrondissement of Paris, my fictional Tamara lives in the old-money Seventh.

Second, when I finished my first novel, set in 1880s Japan, I promised myself that my next book would be about English speakers. Of course, next thing you know, I’m fired up to write about a Polish painter who grew up speaking French. Partly because the biographical Tamara never specified the biographical Rafaela’s nationality or origins, and largely for my own sake, to avoid writing another book full of translated dialogue, I have taken the liberty of imagining an English-speaking Rafaela.

Third, and most interesting to me as a writer, there’s a quietly counterfactual strand to this novel, which appears in the character of Anson Hall. Hemingway buffs will wonder why Anson has the first name of one of Hemingway’s grandfathers and the last name of the other, and also why I have claimed the story that Hemingway’s wife lost all his manuscripts on a train as Anson’s story. While Hemingway overcame the loss of his manuscripts and went on to write his great first novels, Anson Hall is the man Hemingway would have become if he had never overcome that loss: a nicer person than Ernest Hemingway, but a sadder one, too.

Donoghue: Could the relationship between Tamara and Rafaela have happened anytime, or do you see it as specific to Paris in the twenties?

Avery: I don’t see Paris in the twenties as simply the setting in which the biographical Tamara happened to be painting when she created Beautiful Rafaela, the painting that inspired this book. Rather, what’s remarkable about expatriate Jazz Age Paris is that it provided an environment in which a number of different kinds of romantic and sexual relationships between women flourished in a way they rarely had before. You know the examples as well as I: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Janet Flanner and Solita Solano, Bryher and H.D., to say nothing of Natalie Barney, Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Hall--and did Virginia Woolf ever make it to Paris? My point is, in the 1920s, and especially in Paris, you see a concentration of lesbians in the arts, and at the center of the modernist movements in literature and painting especially, that strikes me as singular and profoundly exciting. These circles, however, have already been documented by top-notch scholars and biographers, and I’d be bored if I stuck to dramatizing the research of others.

Rather, I was interested in a world in which two women like Tamara and Rafaela can have an affair and have vastly different interpretations of what it means. It’s not like Rafaela thinks she’s inventing a new category of relationship from scratch when she falls in love with Tamara: surrounded by appealing models of what look to her like marriages between women, she imagines she’s embarking on one of them. At the same time, this is so long before Stonewall--let alone before same-sex marriage becomes legal anywhere--that Tamara can see what she’s engaging in solely in terms of sexual freedom, or decadent naughtiness, or a painter’s prerogative: certainly nothing remotely related to marriage.

So I see the relationship between Tamara and Rafaela as specific to this time and place, which was one in which sexual acts between women seemed more possible than in preceding or subsequent decades and one in which the meaning of those acts was perhaps even more up for grabs than it is today.

(My partner Sharon Marcus’s scholarly work on nineteenth-century marriage between women has influenced my own thinking considerably.)

Donoghue: How does a painter’s job differ from a writer’s?

Avery: I sat for two paintings when I was in my twenties. The experience itself was as dull as (sorry) watching paint dry, but I found myself thinking things I hadn’t thought before, both about what it’s like to be in a body and about what it’s like to look and be looked at. I promised myself I’d come back to those thoughts one day.

As part of the research for this book, I took a weeklong intensive figure-painting class, less to become a painter than to see what it’s like on the other side of the brush.

I wouldn’t have understood the layers of the painter’s reaction to the model, which consists of innocent gratitude and joy, if I hadn’t experienced it myself.

(Thanks to that class, I also learned the answer to a question that had been puzzling me for years: Why is Western art so preoccupied with breasts? Because they’re easy to draw!)

Based on my limited experience of painting and modeling, I think the biggest difference between writers and painters lies in our relationship to labor and time. A viewer can experience a painting in an instant, no matter how long it took the painter to create the image, while a reader has to take time to read all the author’s words, little by little, left to right, so that the work of art can take hours or days to make its full impression. Conversely, a fiction writer can write something like “Sally Bowles showed up in a new fur coat” in a few seconds, while a figurative painter would need hours to render an image of Sally and her coat: all those sequins, all that fur, all those brushstrokes.

I think my pacing of the affair between Rafaela and Tamara replicates the tension between instantaneity and slowness that seems peculiar to visual artists: the novel begins with Rafaela making an impulsive, instantaneous choice to do exactly what our mothers always told us not to do: get into a car with a stranger. But then the pace slows dramatically to accommodate what my painter friend Caroline Wampole calls “the hours in the paint” that transpire between artist and model, the hours of looking and being looked at that allow, in Rafaela’s case, for the slow blossoming of love, and of her own vocation.

(Photo of Ellis Avery © Matthew David Powell)

(Photo of Emma Donoghue © Nina Subin)

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“Absorbing, affecting, and agitating . . . this work is highly recommended.”
       —Library Journal [HC starred review]
(San Francisco Chronicle)

“The strength of Avery’s novel lies in her depiction of a driven and accomplished artist and an impressionable waif who finds that her beauty no longer belongs to her.”
       —Publishers Weekly
(The Boston Globe)

“What’s not to love about Ellis Avery’s romantic novel.”
(More Magazine)

“Plummer . . . captures [young Rafaela’s] appealing energy. . . . Caruso narrates the artist’s part just as convincingly. . . . This is an excellent production of a fascinating story.”

“Breaks important ground for literature, and does so with exuberance, skill and grace.”
       —San Francisco Chronicle
(Sound Commentary)

“A wholly original and engrossing story, set in a fascinating time and place . . . and a display of exceptional talent.”
       —The Boston Globe

“A taut, elegant novel...[Avery’s] prose sings.”
       —More Magazine

“Both actors’ convincing performances match the voices of numerous internationals residing in Paris during the Jazz Age.”

“Caruso’s voice for Rafaela is a breathy whisper. It becomes more emotional as Rafaela’s relationship with Tamara changes from employer to friend to lover. Plummer reads the elderly Tamara beautifully. . . . A fascinating combination of fact and fiction.”
      —Sound Commentary

See all Editorial Reviews

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Product Details

  • Audio CD: 690 pages
  • Publisher: HighBridge Company; Unabridged,Unabridged; 11.75 hours edition (January 5, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1611744555
  • ISBN-13: 978-1611744552
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 5.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,242,040 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ellis Avery studied Japanese tea ceremony for five years in New York and Kyoto, and now teaches creative writing at Columbia University. She is the author of a novel, THE TEAHOUSE FIRE, and an award-winning nonfiction book, THE SMOKE WEEK: SEPTEMBER 11-21, 2001. Her work as appeared in The Village Voice, Publishers Weekly, and Kyoto Journal, and produced onstage at New York's Expanded Arts Theater.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Alan A. Elsner VINE VOICE on December 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book depicts the life of Russian-born artist Tamara de Lempicka through the eyes of one of her models, the lush and sensuous Rafaela Fano.

I was unfamiliar with the life and works of de Lempicka and after reading this enjoyable novel, I did some reading. She comes across in the brief biographies I read as a rather nasty piece of work, and it is to the author's credit that she makes a great effort to explain, if not justify, some of her subject's more egregious acts. She also hewed pretty closely to the known facts -- while allowing her imagination free rein in the character of Rafaela, the narrator of the novel.

The author invents a convincing back story for Rafaela, half-Jewish, half Catholic, forced to leave her mother and step-father's New York home at age 15, running away from an arranged marriage in Sicily and finding herself in Paris trying to claw together a living by whatever means necessary.

Rafaela meets Tamara who is struck by her sensuality and finds her an irresistible subject. The two fall in lust and then in love -- but the naive Rafaela is no match for the complex and subtle Tamara who is playing a double and maybe a triple game.

The author displays considerable cleverness in introducing various real-live characters from the demi-monde of Paris in this "Moveable Feast" era, including a character half based on Hemingway and half on one of his characters from "The Sun Also Rises."

The depiction of the era and the main characters is first-rate and the book turns out to be an absorbing read. I even believed in Tamara's genius -- until I actually saw her pictures which are definitely not my cup of tea.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Reader from Washington, DC on November 30, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I had mixed feelings about "The Last Nude." It is an absorbing story, in which the little we know about a real life affair between famous painter Tamara de Lempicka and her model, Rafaela, is expanded into an fascinating story about a love affair in Roaring Twenties Parisian art and literary circles.

The novel touches on many themes -- unequal relationships in which one person holds too much power, the intrigue and drama of the art world, the nature of an artist's vocation, the effect of an artist's vocation on her family, friends and loved ones, the question of limits in exploiting others for the sake of one's art -- and more themes beyond that.

The characters, both primary and secondary, are well-developed, the plot grips you until the last page, the historical research is extensive and for the most part accurate. So why didn't I like this book? I normally love stories about writers and artists.

My problem -- you may not have this problem -- is that Tamara de Lempicka, the painter, is depicted as such a selfish jerk -- and this is apparently based on accurate historical research -- that I just didn't care what happened to her. That is a problem in a love story where Tamara is one of the two primary characters. Rafaela was wonderful -- sweet, courageous and struggling to hold her own against an older, more powerful and unscrupulous lover, as she tries to define who she herself is and what career she should follow.

Expect a fascinating but very dark story of love and betrayal.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Holly Weiss VINE VOICE on January 5, 2012
Format: Hardcover
When is a muse an inspiration and when is she a plaything? The distinction is hazy in Ellis Avery's The Last Nude.

1927 Paris. Rafaela only wants a hundred francs to buy a black dress so she can take over her flat mate's department store job. In danger of falling into prostitution, she meets Tamara De Lempicka, painter of exotic, sexy Art Deco, and poses for several paintings.

Although outside the parameters of what I usually read, this period piece is well written and sensual. The writer skillfully paints the decadent lifestyle of artists of the time. The passion of the two women grows as does their disparate outlooks on life. Characters are well defined. We grow to despise the self-centered, manipulative Lempicka and empathize with Rafaela's lost naiveté. Readers will glimpse the artistic culture of 1920s Paris and enter the world of erotic lesbianism. The book ends with dangling threads as it suddenly abandons the women's relationship to finish Lempicka's story.

Ellis Avery, inspired by a 1927 Lempicka oil painting called, "Beautiful Rafaela" recreates their relationship in her second historical fiction novel. Another painting from their affair, "The Dream" is the cover art for the book. In an interview, Avery explains that Jazz Age Paris provided the "environment in which a number of different kinds of romantic and sexual relationships between women flourished in a way they rarely had before." Ms. Avery took a weeklong intensive figure-painting class to learn what it's like on the other side of the brush.

Penguin's Riverhead Books Division graciously supplied the advance review copy.

Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By dizzyweasel VINE VOICE on December 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Last Nude is the story of Tamara de Lempicka, an Art Deco painter in Paris from the 1920s, and her muse Rafaela. Rafaela meets Lempicka while killing time before taking a new job as a shopgirl. She agrees to model for Lempicka, and her new career (and love affair) begins.

This is not a light novel. I wasn't able to read more than 30 pages at a time. It's not that the prose was a difficult slog, but rather the subject matter was so dark. Lempicka was a temperamental, mercurial artist. She could be incredibly loving or incredibly cruel, sometimes in the same breath. She was brilliant, but a difficult character to love.

Rafaela's life was the most troublesome. Avery does an excellent job of exposing the ephemeral life of Paris party girls. Rafaela and her roommate Gin live lives of glitz and glamour, on the surface. Gin has a boyfriend in the banking industry, Rafaela has no trouble getting dates with wealthy fellas. But when told from Rafaela's viewpoint, the life of glitz and glamour isn't quite so sparkly. Rafaela escaped an arranged marriage that would have forced her to toil as a poor housewife while producing child after child, but in order to escape that life she was forced to prostitute herself. This man took her to Paris and set her up with a place to stay, money, and magnificent dinners and parties. But everything comes with a cost. Rafaela is passed from man to man, trying to keep herself fed and sheltered. She has to sell her expensive gifts to make ends meet. She sleeps in coatrooms at the Ritz so her roommate can entertain male callers in the hopes that someday one of them will marry her. Rafaela has to have sex with lecherous old men and snotty young men who try to mold her into what they want her to be.
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