Avery (The Teahouse Fire, 2006, etc.) is right in step with the current publishing trend toward romantic yet literary historical fiction with this imagined romance between the cubist/art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka and the model Rafaela, who appears in six of her paintings.
The first, longer section of the novel is told from half-Italian-American Catholic/half-Jewish Rafaela Fano’s viewpoint and set among the sexually fluid ex-pats of Paris in 1927. On her way from the Bronx to an arranged marriage in Italy at age 17, Rafaela runs away to Paris, where she quickly becomes part of the demimonde. Rafaela meets 27-year-old Tamara de Lempicka in the Bois de Boulogne (a factual encounter), and Tamara takes her home to pose. Already an established painter, Tamara is an aristocratic émigré from Poland by way of Russia and the mother of a young daughter. She is also going through a difficult divorce and has had affairs with men and women. Soon Tamara and Rafaela are lovers. Rafaela has been paid for sex by numerous men, but for the first time she falls in love. What Tamara feels is less clear because she lives within a self-invented, larger-than-life persona. She is a serious artist and her sexual passion for Rafaela seems real, but so is her passion for money. Soon she embroils Rafaela in a scheme that pits two wealthy art buyers in a competition over who gets the second version of her painting “Beautiful Rafaela,” a painting she promises Rafaela she will never sell. The novel’s shorter second section shifts to 1980 Mexico, where the aged Tamara spends her last days.
Steeped in largely feminine/lesbian sensuality and peopled by famous and cultural figures of pre–World War II Europe, the novel is a dark, sexy romp, although it ends in a disappointing whimper.