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.