Book Talk: Quest for the story of an enigmatic model and lover

Thu Jan 5, 2012 6:26am EST
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - The dark-eyed, black haired woman with strong features and a blood-red mouth lies naked on a sofa, her sultry -- and somewhat hurt -- gaze locked on the viewer.

She is Rafaela, the subject of several paintings by Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka and the narrator of "The Last Nude," a novel by Ellis Avery set mainly in 1920s Paris.

Little is known about Rafaela besides her appearance in the paintings, the fact that she was de Lempicka's lover, and that de Lempicka was working on a copy of her most famous Rafaela painting the day she died, more than half a century later -- which made her compelling to Avery.

Avery, who took a painting class as part of her research, spoke to Reuters about getting inside Rafaela's skin and the book, including an 11th-hour decision to cut 120 pages.

Q: You've said you were inspired by the paintings. How did you develop the story and the characters?

A: "I saw her work at the Royal Academy in London in 2004 and came away weak in the knees -- this is so gorgeous -- and the caption said that the young woman in the painting was the 'Beautiful Rafaela' from 1927, that she had met this girl on a walk in the Bois de Bologne and she became her model, and her lover. Their relationship resulted in six paintings, and it seems to have been a brief relationship. Then when I looked at her catalog, the very last painting she was working on when she died was indeed that copy of 'Beautiful Rafaela.' So 53 years later, this girl was still on her mind, which was thrilling to me.

"I got a book of her paintings and cut them out and spread them on the desk. All the paintings from 1925 to 1929, and looked at them for days. I read biographies of de Lempicka by her daughter, by others. I read a lot about her era. But a lot of the work was just looking at the paintings and at the people that she represented, and just trying to enter that world."

Q: How did you get to the character of Rafaela?   Continued...