Review: The Nude

In C. Michelle Lindley's evocative debut, The Nude, a young art historian travels to an island off the coast of Greece for work only to become embroiled in a complex love affair.

In the aftermath of a devastating personal loss, a divorce, and an affair with a colleague, art historian Elizabeth Clarke finds stability in her work, despite the volatility of her boss. His treatment of her teeters precariously between mentorship and sexual harassment. Eager to prove herself worthy of a promotion, Elizabeth arrives in the Greek isles determined to acquire a subversive nude statue. But as Elizabeth gets closer to her handsome translator, his enigmatic wife, Theo, and their friends, her once-professional work trip quickly unravels into a psychological and sexual puzzle box that she can't so easily find her way out of.

Despite The Nude's thoughtful and patient deconstruction of lofty themes, its attention to Elizabeth's ever-constricting mental state gives it the propulsion of a psychological thriller. Lindley alternates between languid, sensual prose and clipped, devastating indictments, producing a brilliantly suffocating outline of Elizabeth's consciousness. While considering a photograph of Theo, for example, Elizabeth at first gets pleasurably lost in noting "a wimpling on her thigh, a prominent vein on her hands, a faint scar running across her belly button, a peek of delicate body hair," only then to be confronted associatively by a memory of "the adhesive, how tightly it melded to [the statue], had made it seem as though the head had been replaced by a new one, or else had never existed at all. What was the line, really, between destruction and invention?... I let [the photograph] bury me." Elizabeth's own process of coming undone by art, ambition, and desire in the context of a stunningly realized Mediterranean milieu recalls a kind of Highsmith-ian suspense that may surprise some readers.

But as in the best thrillers, the seeming urgency of what the narrator focuses on obscures complicity in the real crime. In The Nude, that central crime is most literally cultural theft, and yet Elizabeth's complicity in this system both abstractly and concretely connects this offense to the gendered and geographic power dynamics that underlie it. Elizabeth may be objectified by men in the novel, but her gaze objectifies, too, leaving her wondering to what extent it's possible to "take less." --Alice Martin, freelance writer and editor

Shelf Talker: A penetrating and thrilling portrait of ambition, sexual power dynamics, and cultural theft, C. Michelle Lindley's The Nude doesn't let its readers off the hook easily.

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