Without a doubt, Alyson Richman’s “The Velvet Hours” is one of the best books I have ever read. The characters are so vivid and the various settings so true to life that the story draws you in from the first page and won’t let you go. In fact, I am still thinking about it several days after finishing it, which is definitely a sign of a good book.
This novel is loosely based on a true story which makes it even more intriguing. Readers may remember that, in 2010, a Paris apartment had been found that had been locked for nearly 70 years. As the video in my link shows, that apartment had been full of priceless treasures and furnishings from the late 19th century Belle Epoque period in Paris. Reputed to be where a beautiful real life courtesan by the name of Marthe de Florian lived, Richman’s novel picks up from there.
In the novel, Marthe de Florian’s real name had been Mathilde Beaugiron. She starts her adult life as a seamstress and struggles constantly for money. She gets pregnant and has a child she names Henri who she gives up immediately after birth to a seamstress friend and her husband who are unable to have children of their own. Henri only finds out the truth of his birth when he is 18 — a fact that makes him bitter to say the least.
However, Mathilde does not remain a seamstress for long because of her beauty and grace. She becomes a dancer in a local theatre where she meets Charles de Montagne. Charles is a very rich man who falls in love with her, gets her to change her name to Marthe de Florian, and sets her up in a gorgeous Paris apartment — THE apartment as it were. In other words, Marthe becomes a mistress in order to escape poverty and considers her relationship with Charles her job.
The son, Henri, in the meantime, gets married and has a daughter named Solange. What I found particularly interesting is that Henri and Solange use the surname Beaugiron. Anyway, when Solange is 19, Henri introduces her to Marthe, her paternal grandmother. A complication, as WWII looms, is the fact that Solange’s mother, who died when she was young, was Jewish — a fact that becomes a large part of this book.
In any event, the story in The Velvet Hours goes back and forth between Marthe to Solange, from the 1880s and the early 1940s, narrated by each of the women. Both learn to love one another and to find their own stories out of the ashes of WWI, the Depression and WWII.
In fact, it is the character Solange who can connect us to the real story, because it is when a woman dies in 2010 in the United States at the age of 91 that her children and grandchildren learn about an address and a key to an apartment in Paris that had belonged to Solange’s grandmother Marthe. Of course, while Solange may not have been the real name of the relative, it does show us how many generations might have been affected by that mysterious Paris apartment.
A truly wonderful book. My rating is 5 stars out of 5.
Published by Berkley on September 6th, 2016 (374 pages including study guide)