Book Club #4: “The Last Nude”

This month we traveled to Paris in the 1920s, seen through the lens of painter Tamara de Lempicka and her muse, Rafaela Fano. Most of the tale of The Last Nude was told through Rafaela’s eyes, with a much briefer view of Tamara’s later life through her own point of view in Part Two. And what a journey all of it was.

If you’re like me, once you finished this novel, your head was swirling with questions and thoughts and feelings. It took me a little while to really get into this novel, but then there was a point, starting from when Rafaela spied on Ira and Tamara that one night, where I suddenly couldn’t put it down. When I came to the end, I felt like I’d experienced a profound world that I couldn’t shake from my brain. I found reading Emma Donoghue’s interview with Ellis Avery about the novel very fascinating and helpful afterwards. I learned that the slow pace of the first half of the novel wasn’t just me, but was a writing technique done with intent, meant to replicate the slow, but important, hours that stretch between painter and muse, or between two people falling in love. It also reveals things that I hadn’t caught on to in my initial reading, such as Anson Hall’s character representing Ernest Hemingway if Hemingway had failed as a writer, resulting in “a nicer person than Ernest Hemingway, but a sadder one, too.” Avery also reveals slightly more insight as to what she believes really happened to Rafaela Fano.

And on that point, let’s start some discussion questions, working backwards with our most pressing thoughts first.

1) What do you think happened to Rafaela?

I closed the novel hoping I could jump on Google and find out what actually happened to her, but reality soon closed in that her character was a true creation of Avery’s wonderful mind, and discovering her real destiny is a quest lost to history. In the aforementioned interview, Avery seems to imply that Rafaela becoming a victim of the Nazis in the coming decade was probably an inevitable fate, revealed in the book with the discussion of what becomes of Vi Morris and Tamara’s failed attempt to whisk Rafaela to America. Yet this idea is so devastating to me that I cling to a fact mentioned at the very end of Part One, when Rafaela mentions that she eventually becomes close friends with Sylvia and Adrienne, even vacationing to Adrienne’s family cabin in the Alps, “where I’m perched now.” Perhaps unrealistically, part of me likes to imagine Rafaela riding out the Holocaust in a cabin in the mountains in Switzerland, a safe haven created by her lesbian friends, and that she one day does receive La Belle Rafaela, wherever in the world she happens to be.

2) What did you think of Part Two? Did it surprise you; throw you off? Did it change your perspective on Tamara?

To answer this for myself, it did throw me for a loop at first, but I think it’s what made the whole novel so fascinating and complex in the end. At the end of Rafaela’s narration in Part One, it’s so easy to cast Tamara as such an awful villain, so satisfying to silently root on Rafaela’s liberation from such a cold-hearted bitch. Yet while Tamara’s age-addled mind in Part Two doesn’t necessarily turn her into a warm and fuzzy personality, it does allow for greater understanding of how different people operate, and the lies some people have to tell themselves as a means of survival strategy. Did you feel more empathy for Tamara by the end of the novel–or not?

3) There is something that is always so fascinating about the 1920s, and in Paris, no less. What was your favorite detail from the setting and the time period?

While I know I should have been more focused on the painting and art, I found myself really wanting to see those Coco Chanel dresses, between imagining myself hanging out at Shakespeare and Company.

4) Was there a secondary character you really didn’t like, or felt was superfluous? Any favorite secondary characters?

5) Any other final thoughts? Favorite parts, questions that still linger?

Thanks for choosing this book, AfterEllen-ers. I’m marking it as one of my favorite reads of the year.