The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman
It’s 1938 in Paris and Solange Beaugiron is a 19 year old woman living with her father. She is an aspiring writer looking for inspiration, when her rather reserved father unexpectedly introduces her to his estranged mother, Marthe de Florian. The two women begin to spend time together each day as Marthe relives her past for Solange, with Solange taking notes. The story alternates between Marthe’s past during France’s Belle Époque era and Solange’s present as World War II approaches its borders.
Marthe tells Solange of the squalor of her poor childhood in Montmartre circa 1888 where she saw her young sister die. As the days go by, Marthe’s story continues to unfold and she grows into a young woman who finds herself unwed, pregnant and working her fingers to the bone as a seamstress. Feeling she must give her child a better life, Marthe bore her son but gave him up for adoption, requesting that he be told about her when he reached 18 years of age. During an era where France became a hotbed for the arts, Marthe then chose to remake her life in the theater. She eventually becomes a courtesan to Charles, a wealthy married man who sets her up in an elegant apartment and showers her with everything she could need or want. She tells her granddaughter of her taste in the exotic arts and how her patron provided money to purchase all of the treasures she has coveted through the years, including a lovely pearl necklace and a commissioned painting of her by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini.
Marthe’s love for fine things is apparent and as her story unfolds it’s as if she is painting a work of art on a new canvas, with no detail gone untouched. It’s truly the story of another time and place and Solange is fascinated by Marthe’s story. Solange also realizes that Marthe has become somewhat reclusive and while reliving her past, she is oblivious to the happenings of the present day. When Solange leaves her grandmother’s side each night she must deal with a harsh realities of her present-day world, where the Germans are preparing to invade France. Solange is part Jewish and she and her friends know it will become necessary to flee Paris. She’s not sure what her future holds but one thing is certain, she is fascinated by the life of her grandmother and someday she will publish all of her writings.
Anyone who appreciates art, beauty and fashion is apt to like this lavish and sensual work of historical fiction as Marthe de Florian transports her granddaughter back to a magical place and time in her life. It’s also serious fodder for someone who loves vintage discoveries and imagining the story behind them. The book is actually based on a true account of an abandoned apartment discovered in Paris after lying untouched for over 70 years. The original painting by Boldini is divine and the apartment is full of antiquities that boggle the mind. I am absolutely amazed at this find in a city that was ravaged by war. So many items here peak my curiosity. You will definitely want to check out the article about this apartment Inside the Paris apartment… and then you should read this lovely book. Taking inspiration from the apartment, Alyson Richman has woven a beautiful and intriguing glimpse into what might-have-been.
I want to thank the publisher (Berkley Publishing Group) for providing me with the ARC through the Goodreads Giveaways program for an honest review.