When I first heard about The Velvet Hours, a new book by Alyson Richman, I have to admit I was like, “Great, another book about World War II. Another book about Paris. Cliche AF.” But seeing the dozens of four- and five-star reviews on Goodreads, I decided to take a chance. And this book truly impressed me. If you’re interested in excellent storytelling, historical fiction, Paris during the Belle Epoque, or just getting lost in a great book, check out The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman.
The Velvet Hours is set in two tumultuous and iconic periods of Parisian history: the Belle Epoque and World War II. The main character, a young woman named Solange, discovers that her father is adopted, and that her real grandmother is a rich, elegant woman named Marthe de Florian. Solange’s father encourages Solange to spend time with Marthe to distract his daughter from the passing of her mother, and because Solange wants to be a writer, and her father knows that Marthe has had an interesting life. Over the course of a year and a half, Solange gets to know her new grandmother, and Marthe de Florian regales her granddaughter with stories of her life, set against the sumptuous background of the Belle Epoque.
The narrative flips between Solange’s first-person narrative in 1939-1940 and Marthe de Florian’s third-person reminiscences. She tells Solange about her humble beginnings as a seamstress in Montmartre, her adolescent days performing onstage, and eventually becoming a woman of the demimonde–that half world occupied by courtesans, mistresses, and the like. Marthe meets and engages in a decades-long affair with a rich man named Charles, discovers her love for art and beauty, and becomes an elegant, accomplished woman who turns her life into a work of art.
Marthe’s luxurious descriptions are punctuated by Solange’s coming-of-age story in the midst of the beginning of World War II. Solange discovers she’s half Jewish, and meets and falls in love with a Jewish boy with ties to her mother. The two have to navigate a drastically changing world, the threat of the German occupation, bombing, conscription, and the looming presence of the Holocaust (which we know, but they don’t). It’s an utterly breathtaking novel, wide in scope and rich with detail about both of these very different periods of Parisian history.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it! The writing was simple, straightforward, and yet rich. Richman is a true storyteller; getting lost in this book was so easy, but I never felt like the novel suffered from cliche, which is such an accomplishment given the subject matter! I loved getting to know Marthe and Solange as women and as granddaughter and grandmother. But the best part of this book was something I didn’t know until I read the afterword: that Marthe de Florian was a real woman.
This book is actually based on a true story. In 2010, Marthe de Florian’s apartment was discovered after being sealed for 70 years. Inside was a perfectly-preserved apartment from the Belle Epoque. It looks like a time capsule, and it’s utterly breathtaking. Above the mantel was also a portrait of Marthe de Florian painted by the famous artist Giovanni Boldini. Richman’s inspiration for the novel, which takes some liberties with history, was this “time capsule” apartment and the demimondaine Marthe de Florian. Learning that it was based on a true story made this novel that much more special. Imagine being able to walk through an apartment looking like this! Let alone living in it…
I would recommend The Velvet Hours for anyone who loves history, the Belle Epoque era of Paris, or an excellently told story, even if it does veer a little from the actual version of events!