Description: As Paris teeters on the edge of the German occupation, a young French woman closes the door to her late grandmother’s treasure-filled apartment, unsure if she’ll ever return.
An elusive courtesan, Marthe de Florian cultivated a life of art and beauty, casting out all recollections of her impoverished childhood in the dark alleys of Montmartre. With Europe on the brink of war, she shares her story with her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, using her prized possessions to reveal her innermost secrets. Most striking of all are a beautiful string of pearls and a magnificent portrait of Marthe painted by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini. As Marthe’s tale unfolds, like velvet itself, stitched with its own shadow and light, it helps to guide Solange on her own path.
Inspired by the true account of an abandoned Parisian apartment, Alyson Richman brings to life Solange, the young woman forced to leave her fabled grandmother’s legacy behind to save all that she loved.
There were many things that initially attracted me to Alyson Richman’s “The Velvet Hours.” Historical fiction taking place in France (or Europe in general) is an automatic attention-grabber for me since I’m fascinated with the various time periods throughout European history, but it was the constant comparison to Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale” that sealed it for me. I read “The Nightingale” with my book club at the beginning of the year and it quickly became one of my all-time favorite historical fiction novels.
Written in a similar style, Richman jumps back and forth between two perspectives throughout the novel (as Hannah does with her two main characters). In “The Velvet Hours” we meet Marthe de Florian, as she narrates her pre-World War I journey to her granddaughter Solange, and explains her life journey to becoming who she is. Meanwhile, as Solange consistently visits her grandmother to hear her story, World War II breaks out and spreads across Europe.
Impacting her life deeply, Solange’s chapters are centered on the discovery of her Jewish heritage and the relationships she builds as the war begins to envelop the country. Both young women on life-altering journeys, “The Velvet Hours” is a tale of how Marthe and Solange each take the hand they are dealt and shape life to make it what they want.
Despite a slow start, it was a deeply moving novel and I think that as much as I loved “The Nightingale,” the comparison didn’t do “The Velvet Hours” justice. The most impactful part was reading the author’s note at the end where Richman details the true story of Marthe de Florian’s apartment that the book is based on. Alyson Richman does a remarkable job of taking the skeleton of this story and creating such a richly, detailed novel demonstrating how Marthe and Solange may have reacted and survived the wars engulfing their lives.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: ALYSON RICHMAN
Alyson Richman is the author of “The Mask Carver’s Son,” “The Rhythm of Memory (formerly published as Swedish Tango),” The Last Van Gogh,” and the national bestseller, “The Lost Wife.” Her books have been published in over fifteen languages. She loves to travel, cook, ride her yellow bicycle, and do ballet. She currently lives in New York with her husband and two children.
*I received this book from Penguin’s First to Read program in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.