Reviewed by Donna Meredith
In The Velvet Hours, Alyson Richman explores two different eras in Paris, the Belle Epoque and the lead-up to Hitler’s Nazi invasion, each rendered with meticulous attention to detail.
The novel would be a fine read as a multi-generational romance, but it soars beyond that convention because it was inspired by the true account of an abandoned Parisian apartment unsealed after 70 years. Readers can see photographs of the actual apartment online.
Richman employs both research and imagination to recreate the life of Marthe de Florian, a cultivated courtesan, who shares her story with granddaughter Solange Beaugiron. The viewpoint shifts between the two women, delivering a compelling narrative for each.
Born into poverty to a laundress, Marthe determines to make a different life for herself. First she becomes a skilled seamstress, but gets fired when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. With little choice—and little regret—she gives her son up for adoption and becomes a performer in a dance hall. Her beauty and fine figure soon attract the attention of Charles, a wealthy nobleman.
Before long, Charles sequesters her in an apartment. He indulges her by filling it with fine art and elaborate furnishings. It becomes their pleasure palace, one that Marthe rarely leaves. She exists in the demimonde, a shadow world. The author capitalizes on the idea of light and shadow throughout the story, sometimes deftly, though in other instances the motif feels overdone and clichéd. But book clubs could hold an intriguing discussion about whether Marthe is more free or trapped than other women of her era, including Charles’s wife. Suspense is heightened when Charles becomes gravely ill and Marthe wonders what her life could be without his patronage.
Before he dies, Charles commissions a stunning, sensuous portrait of Marthe. As the painting hangs above the mantel, it reigns over all other luxuries in the apartment. It insists on making its presence known, becoming, almost, a character in its own right. The painting is the work of Giovanni Boldoni, the renowned Italian artist, who falls in love with this beautiful courtesan. Online, readers can view this magnificent painting, which sold for 1.78 million pounds after the apartment was reopened in 2010.
While Marthe’s son never quite forgives her for giving him away, her granddaughter Solange becomes intrigued by this glamorous sixty year old, “a woman, born in the dark corners of Paris, who elevated herself through her own cleverness and charm to carve out a better life for herself.” As a writer seeking inspiration, Solange believes her grandmother will be “the perfect muse.”
When she is not writing down her grandmother’s story, Solange visits a Jewish bookstore specializing in rare volumes to learn more about two ancient books handed down by her Jewish mother. Solange discovers they are extremely valuable, particularly the 14th century hand-illustrated copy of the Barcelona Haggadah, a sacred text meant to accompany a Passover service. Not only this religious treasure, but also the bookstore owner’s son Alex plays an important role in Solange’s future. There they are, a young Jewish woman and man living in Paris in 1940. Hitler has just invaded Poland. Dramatic irony creates tension because readers know the fate of Paris and of most Jews—unless they can escape Hitler’s grasp.
With easily-read prose and a fascinating look at two eras in Paris’s past, The Velvet Hours is well worth a reader’s time. It is Richman’s sixth novel. She is also the author of The Garden of Letters, The Lost Wife, The Last Van Gough, The Rhythm of Memory, and The Mask Carver’s Son.
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