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Friday, April 20, 2012

The Last Nude

The Last Nude
Ellis Avery
Riverhead Books, 2012

Young Rafaela has escaped an arranged marriage by getting lost in 1920s Paris. Her parents put her on a boat to Italy but she traded sex for a train ticket, clothes, shoes, and, once in desperation, money. When she meets art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka, the two hit it off, professionally and sexually, and Rafaela becomes immortalized in a series of paintings that become famous.

Rafaela has never experienced the kind of passion she finds with her lover Tamara, but she feels unbalanced by the older woman’s power and control over her. Tamara pays her for her services as a model, but as the affair continues, Rafaela falls in love and will do anything to protect and defend Tamara, even when the painter manipulates two different men who want to buy a painting in which Rafaela is featured. As Tamara schemes and plays the two buyers against the other, Rafaela is torn between believing she has a future with the painter and the fear that Tamara is just using her for her own gain.

This novel is rich with details of the Roaring Twenties in expat Paris. Based on the actual artist and model, the imagined romance of the two brings to life the carefree and indulgent decade that enabled Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Hemingway to create great art. Told from the viewpoint of the young and na├»ve Rafaela, the reader will understand and appreciate the ups and downs, hope and disillusionment, and finally, the bitterness and despair that she experiences during her first love affair. Although this novel is defined by its rich and complex characters, the plot is interesting and compelling and will keep you guessing all the way to the somewhat disappointing ending.


Other novels by this author:

The Teahouse Fire (2006)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Twilight by Katherine Mosby (2005)
Breaking her engagement to an undesirable partner in the years preceding World War II, Lavinia Gibbs rebuilds her life in Europe, where she experiences a sexual and political awakening at the side of enigmatic Frenchman Gaston Lesseur.

The Art of Seduction by Katherine O’Neal (2007)
Faking her own death to finally get her haunting, sensual paintings noticed by the world, Mason Caldwell, masquerading as her surviving "sister" Amy, reaps the rewards of fame, wealth, and privilege, gaining entrance to haute Paris, where a dangerously sexy art expert calls her bluff.

I am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto (2003)
Follows the life of Virginie Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent's controversial portrait "Madame X," from her Creole youth and flight to France during the American Civil War, to her marriage to a prominent banker.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Odds

The Odds
Stewart O’Nan
Viking, 2012

Art and Marion are spending the last weekend of their marriage at Niagara Falls. They are celebrating 30 years together through many ups and downs, but this weekend is also a chance to decide if they are going to stay together or get a divorce. Both have been unfaithful, although they are both aware of only one. Their children are grown, they are both unemployed, and their house is going into foreclosure, so they have decided to go scrape together all the available cash they have and go all in on a bet at the casino. As they go through the motions for their marriage, they each present their points of view towards themselves and each other, their long standing resentments, joys, dreams and hopes for a different future present themselves in turn. Although it is obvious that Marion is less likely to want to reconcile than Art, she cannot help but appreciate the long history they have shared. At the same time, she longs for a new beginning and cannot decide if it should include Art or not.

This spare but engaging little novel packs a lot into few words. Art and Marion are like many married couples who are experiencing roadblocks in their relationship. It is sad to watch their relationship dissolve, but there is still hope they will stay together because they do genuinely care for each other. The “all-in” bet at the casino seems like an obvious metaphor for their marriage, and perhaps a foolish risk to take, but Art is determined to try it. I felt bad for Art, who wants so much to stay with his wife that he tries too hard to make her happy. As he tries to recreate their honeymoon, which was also spent in Niagara Falls, Marion is mostly irritated by the sightseeing and crowds, and even gets sick after eating shellfish. Poor Art, and poor Marion, too, who have had so much bad luck the past few years that their life together has come to this point. And yet, the reader is left with the hope they will figure out a future and be happy together in some way.

Other novels by this author:
Snow Angels (1994)
Speed Queen (1997)
A World Away (1998)
Everyday People (2001)
Wish You Were Here (2002)
The Night Country (2003)
The Good Wife (2005)
Last Night at the Lobster (2007)
Songs for the Missing (2008)
Emily Alone (2011)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Truest Pleasure by Robert Morgan (1995)
Pentecostal worship ideals attract Ginny while her husband Tom disapproves, but they keep their marriage intact in the early-20th-century Blue Ridge mountains through a series of difficulties.

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee (2005) Dependent on others after losing his leg in an accident, sixty-year-old Paul Rayment finds himself falling in love with a down-to-earth Croatian nurse and encouraged by a mysterious writer to take an activist role in his own life.

After This by Alice McDermott (2006)
A portrait of an American family during the middle decades of the twentieth century evokes the social, spiritual, and political turmoil of the era as seen through the experiences of a middle-class couple and their children.