The painter Tamara de Lempicka’s coolly elegant portraits have become synonymous with the suave Art Deco style of 1920s Jazz-era Paris. In her sophomore novel, American writer Ellis Avery (The Teahouse Fire) gives us de Lempicka in her heyday from the perspective of the model for one of her best-known paintings, Beautiful Rafaela.
Born Maria Górskain 1898 to a wealthy Polish family in Moscow, at 18 de Lempicka married lawyer Tadeusz Lempicki, who was arrested by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. After de Lempicka helped secure her husband’s release, the couple ended up in Paris but split in 1927, around the time she painted Beautiful Rafaela. De Lempicka and Rafaela’s acquaintance was relatively brief, but Avery assumes (arguably) that she must have played a much larger role in the painter’s life based on the fact that de Lempicka was working on a copy of Beautiful Rafaela at the time of her death in 1980.
Little is known about the real Rafaela, except that she was 17 when she met de Lempicka in a “chance” encounter in Paris’ Bois de Boulogne (there’s every reason to believe the bisexual, libidinous de Lempicka was, in fact, cruising). Avery has seized upon this void to create the fictional backstory to Rafaela and de Lempicka’s affair, beginning with Rafaela’s first glimpse of de Lempicka as she steps out of the green Bugatti immortalized in her iconic self-portrait.
In Avery’s imagining, Rafaela is a young Italian/Jewish-American girl who narrowly escapes an arranged marriage with a step-cousin. She makes her way to Paris after getting a whiff of its essence in the form of the Chanel dress owned by her neighbor in Brooklyn. As sex for cash increasingly becomes her fallback position, however, Rafaela finds herself sliding towards a life of prostitution.
After agreeing to model nude then being summarily seduced, Rafaela falls hard for her new employer. She becomes acquainted the painter’s rarefied crowd, its ground zero Shakespeare and Company, the famous Left Bank bookstore run by American expatriate Sylvia Beach where, to Rafaela’s surprise, lesbian couples appear to outnumber heterosexual ones. Despite the fact that de Lempicka is over a decade her senior and has a young child (whom she neglects), Rafaela yearns to run away and live with her as a married couple. Ever the manipulator, de Lempicka strings Rafaela along while continuing to play the field.
In an interview, Avery describes de Lempicka and Rafaela’s relationship as “hair-raisingly sexy,” yet she struggles to create any real chemistry between the eager ingénue and the cool, imperious artist. In fact, for a novel so preoccupied with sex, there’s little to bring a flush to the cheek here, many of Avery’s seduction scenes being of the fade-to-black variety. De Lempicka ultimately turns out to be much like her paintings: beautiful but full of aristocratic froideur.
Avery capably threads a couple of subplots through the main theme of Rafaela’s seduction, including one in which Rafaela tries to prevent her roommate Ginny from pursuing a married man who clearly has no intention of marrying her. Another involves a professed sportswriter named Anson who initially conceals the clandestine nature of his real job from Rafaela.
The novel’s short second part—told from de Lempicka’s perspective during her final days in Mexico—fills us in on the highlights of her life after her second marriage to her long-time patron, Baron Kuffner. The writing here is overly expository, however, and feels like an afterthought. Overall, Avery’s book brims with rich period detail, but her earnest, straight-arrow approach sometimes clashes with the louche mystique of the milieu she strives to capture.
—Emily Donaldson, a freelance critic and editor