The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (Riverhead Books)
Author of the acclaimed The Teahouse Fire, Ellis Avery’s latest novel, The Last Nude, is a haunting portrait of love and betrayal. Set in Paris during the late 1920s, The Last Nude tells the story of real-life Art Deco Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka and her intimate relationship with a young model named Rafaela.
The story is told in two parts. The first part features Rafaela and follows her as she moves from New York to Paris after escaping an arranged marriage to a man in Italy that she doesn’t know. Rafaela’s struggle to pay the bills forces her into prostitution and she jumps at the chance to make some extra cash modeling for the intriguing and charismatic Lempicka.
Rafaela quickly falls in love with Lempicka and the scenes of the two women together are packed with tension and energy: “It felt good, to fling myself back into bed, to be the Tamara who had stood before me: extravagant monster, a gilded grotesque, a creature who lived for lust alone. ‘‘Come to bed viss me.’”
Rafaela is swept away with her lust and admiration for the artist and she ignores warnings from friends, including other notorious lesbian icons of the time like Sylvia Beach.
The second half of the book focuses on Lempicka’s story. She is an older woman now, close to death, and working on a copy of Beautiful Rafaela, her most famous painting: “There. Is it finished? This empty rush. This stillness in the room. Rafaela has been floating in my mouth like a spoonful of myrtille jam, and now she’s ebbing away. She’s been splayed at my feet, all summer sweat and poppies, and now she dresses, stands in the doorway with her back to me. Is it finished?”
Avery was inspired to write the story after seeing Lempicka’s iconic nude and learning that the artist was trying to recreate it later in life. Her curiosity pays off. The Last Nude is a fascinating look at love, art and betrayal. Highly recommended.
The Girls Club by Sally Bellerose (Bywater Books)
Winner of the Bywater Prize for Fiction, Sally Bellerose’s first novel, The Girls Club, is a fantastic coming-of-age story that follows three sisters during the tumultuous seventies. Marie, Renee and Cora Rose LaBarre are typical sisters in many ways — they love and fight in equal amounts.
The book is separated into three parts and told through Cora Rose’s point of view, a sympathetic and intelligent voice. In the first part, Bellerose captures Cora Rose’s struggle to come to terms with her sexuality — and, in particular, how to resolve her Catholic guilt — with insight and humor.
By eighteen, Cora Rose is married and pregnant. While she tries to follow through with the choices she felt forced to make, her sisters face their own challenges. The story takes a dramatic turn when Cora Rose meets a woman at a bar called “The Girls Club,” and her life is turned upside down.
The Girls Club is an impressive first novel. Highly recommended.