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Originally published Friday, January 13, 2012 at 5:34 AM

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Book review

'The Last Nude': Artist paints model, love ensues

Ellis Avery's "The Last Nude" is the story of a 1920s affair between a haughty Polish aristocrat and a woman who models for her. Avery reads Saturday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

San Francisco Chronicle

Author appearance

Ellis Avery

The author of "The Last Nude" will read at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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In 1927 Paris, an artist painted a nude of a young woman whom she'd found in the seedy Bois de Boulogne. The painter, Tamara de Lempicka, was a haughty Polish aristocrat haunted by the Russian Revolution. The model, Rafaela Fano, was a 17-year-old American adrift in a foreign country, struggling to make ends meet. The two became lovers, and the work that emerged from their encounters caused a sensation in Paris and made a permanent mark on 20th century art.

These real-life facts provide the framework for "The Last Nude" (Riverhead, 310 pp., $25.95), Ellis Avery's bold second novel, which narrates the love affair between Tamara and Rafaela, primarily from the model's point of view.

Rafaela, as portrayed here, is a character one wants to curl up and spend time with. She is complex: both strong and vulnerable, funny and earnest, seething with hunger and untapped power. This is a book about art and lust, but it is also about the effects of displacement and migration. Rafaela was born at sea during her parents' emigration from Italy, raised in New York, and then sent back to Italy at the age of 17 to marry her stepfather's relative against her will. How she escapes on the voyage and makes her way to Paris is its own captivating tale of gritty survival, tracing a young woman's quest to carve a place for herself in the world, even if she must do so with her bare hands.

Tamara, too, is an emigrant, though a wealthy one. The power dynamic between the two women mines the fault lines of socioeconomic class, exploring its unsettling effect on love and desire, intimacy and betrayal, loss and triumph.

The conversations between Tamara and Rafaela crackle with erotic charge, while the prose, at once elegant and precise, brings scenes to life with vivid force. Here is Rafaela, discovering new terrains of sexuality: "I was liquor; I was laughter; I was a sliding girl on a shining rail: something I'd forgotten how to be."

Those seeking a literary escape to 1920s Paris will also find marvelous descriptions of the setting. The place and time are further brought to life by appearances from historical figures such as Sylvia Beach, the lesbian founder of Shakespeare & Company who first published "Ulysses," and Violette Morris, a famed boxer who dressed in men's clothing and later became a Nazi informer.

The plot heats and heats until it boils over with dramatic intrigue, finely woven twists and the kind of revelations that keep a reader up too late at night, greedily turning pages.

There is a strong propulsion to the narrative, but, later in the book, it also invites the reader to turn back to earlier passages and reread them with fresh understanding as startling new layers are brought to light.

Writing historical fiction involves a challenging balance between sharing the fascinating facts accrued during research and ensuring that such facts are woven organically into the story. Some moments in this book feel contrived. Famous characters happen to say pivotal things at the exact moment that our narrator is in earshot, while others recite information that may be interesting to the reader but that digresses from what a flesh-and-blood person would naturally say in that context.

When this happens, the characters feel less real, less propelled by their own intrinsic motivations. But even this is a flaw born from sheer enthusiasm, from the obvious passion the author has for her material.

"The Last Nude" is reminiscent of Sarah Waters' historical novels, which prove that tales of women's desire for women not only can make gripping reads for audiences of all stripes but also have just as much to say about the great human themes as any other tales of desire.

Even now, in 2012, this is a radical notion. With "The Last Nude," Ellis Avery continues to push those barriers open, to the benefit of all of us who love and read books. "The Last Nude" breaks important ground for literature, and does so with exuberance, skill and grace.

Carolina De Robertis is the author of

"The Invisible Mountain." Her second novel, "Perla," is forthcoming from Knopf in March.

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