The most amazing thing about this quite amazing book is that it exists at all.
The second novel by Ellis Avery, author of the award-winning “The Teahouse Fire,’’ is a member of an endangered species: the kind of offbeat, risky book that’s threatened with extinction by an increasingly risk-averse publishing industry.
Once upon a time, editors (Max Perkins comes to mind) nurtured the careers of offbeat, risky authors (Hemingway and Fitzgerald come to mind), committing to them for a lifetime. Publishers acquired books based on literary merit, not sales forecasts. Today the publishing-industrial-complex has shed its highbrow skin. But lucky us: Avery’s sophomore effort slipped through the fiscal/creative conservative keyhole, treating us to a wholly original and engrossing story, set in a fascinating time and place.
Not for nothing did Woody Allen choose The City of Light in the 1920s for last year’s “Midnight in Paris,’’ his first paean to a city other than New York. Like that film, “The Last Nude’’ plays against the grit and glitter of Lost Generation Paris, making the most of the city’s romantic beauty, the stage on which its outsized ex-pat characters played.
As her foil Avery has chosen real-life painter Tamara de Lempicka. Well-known among art aficionados - Madonna is a collector - de Lempicka’s artistic and sexual adventures make Papa Hemingway’s seem traditional, almost tame.
Playing the fictional part of de Lempicka’s muse, lover, and victim is Rafaela Fano, who flees her family’s grip, running off to Paris to escape an arranged marriage. Walking alone through the Bois de Boulogne soon after her arrival, Rafaela is approached by a glamorous woman in a bottle-green car. “She looked down at my sad old shoes, and suddenly I knew we were thinking the same thing: she had money and I needed it. . . . ‘I ask because you are beautiful,’ she said, ‘and I am a painter. I paint nudes . . . May I paint you sometime?’ ’’
Later in the book, Tamara recounts the same moment. “I felt her eyes on my pale gloves and hood, and when I reapplied my lipstick at a stoplight, I realized I was doing it to make her watch me. And she did. Suddenly I had a girl like plump blackberries, glossy and eager, watching my mouth.’’
It will not surprise you to learn that painting isn’t all that transpires in Tamara’s studio. But what might surprise and delight you - it did me - is the brilliance on display when Avery writes sex. Scenes that might fall flat or offend, written by a lesser talent, singe the page, and the hand that holds it.
“Unconsciously, I closed my mouth and let it fall open again, just to repeat the pleasure of Tamara’s finger - my own tongue - across my lip. Suddenly I felt the air thicken . . . When I felt her hair wisping against my face again, I inhaled sharply. When she kissed me, I sighed.’’
Also unsurprisingly, after the ecstasy, there is agony. As the European post-World War I economy lurches toward collapse, the threat of a second world war escalates, and the hedonistic gaiety of Paris winds down. Rafaela’s newfound idyll crashes as well. She learns the hard way (how else?) that Tamara isn’t what or whom as she seemed to be.
“I could have lain there all night, crying myself to sleep . . . I could have piled up Tamara’s paintings and burned them all. But Tamara had given me the one thing I thought I would never feel: the ability to love someone . . . That feeling of choosing her, [protecting] her, was the best thing that had ever happened to me, and I didn’t want to let go of it, even if I was terribly, terribly mistaken.’’
Avery’s imaginative gift shines brightest in her ability to take familiar characters (naïve young waif; avaricious older lover), place them in a familiar setting (la belle Paris), engage them in a familiar plot (“Come up to my studio and see my etchings’’ never ends well, does it?) - and make them shiny and deeper and new. Writing this novel was an act of courage and a display of exceptional talent. Publishing it was an act of good judgment, and a leap of faith.
Meredith Maran’s debut novel, “A Theory of Small Earthquakes,’’ will be published on Valentine’s Day. She can be reached at meredith@meredith maran.com or on Twitter: @meredithmaran.