Book Review: The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman
The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman uses a real-life story of an abandoned apartment as her inspiration. Within a historical fiction story readers will learn about the Paris setting as well as the time frame from the 1880s through the period just before World War II.
A few years ago an apartment was discovered to have been abandoned for nearly seventy years. Among the treasures inside was a portrait of Marthe by Giovanni Boldini, a famous painter of the 19th century. Because the facts about these two women are sparse, Richman wrote an imagined tale of Marthe de Florian, a courtesan during the Belle Epoque era, and her granddaughter, Solange. As with her previous novels she develops a story, able to apply a mystery to the character’s lives.
Because Marthe is obsessed with beauty, Richman used velvet, “It is one of the materials that has shadow and light, going from smooth to rough. The metaphor is her illuminating her life as she tells her story to her granddaughter. This is why I put in the quote by Solange about her time spent with her grandmother, “Those hours were like velvet to me. Stories spun of silken thread, her own light and darkness, unabashedly drawn.”
Richman also answered the question of why the Germans never appropriated the apartment and why they did not steal the valuable objects? “I talked to a Jewish expert who believes the concierge must have had a hand in hiding the unoccupied apartment. This is why I gave them a role in the story. I wanted to include how the characters reacted to the events just before World War II.”
With alternating time periods the story tells of two bold and somewhat independent women facing their pasts in the midst of an uncertain future. Marthe de Florian began her life in poverty, watching her mother scrub other people’s laundry, while loosing her youth and beauty. Determined to be surrounded by beauty Marthe uses her aesthetic looks to capture the attention of a wealthy patron, Charles. He sets her up as his mistress, a kept woman, in an apartment where she developed her natural taste and love for splendor. Charles not only encouraged her, but also provided her with the means to survive and sustain herself. There were men after Charles, but none who truly captured her heart as he had. Now, in the 1930s, with Europe on the brink of war and the Holocaust looming in the background, she shares her story with her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, using her prized possessions to reveal her innermost secrets.
Marthe is based on Richman’s grandmother, whom she dedicated this book to. “When my mother saw the dedication she commented, ‘This way she lives on forever.’ My grandmother was one of the most elegant people I knew. She was a feminine person who took pleasure in surrounding herself with beauty. I realized there are pockets of people’s lives we have no idea about. I started thinking how 99% of the people vanish upon death. Our memories are kept alive through the possessions and the stories told from generation to generation.”
The author’s focus on detail with her descriptive words makes the scenes stand out. The setting, the artifacts, and the characters are vividly depicted throughout the story. Moreover, her ability to use symbolism throughout makes the plot even more interesting and is an intricate part of the theme.
One object that has symbolic significance is the ancient Haggadah passed down from her grandfather. Richman noted, “I included an Haggadah, which represents the story of Passover, and the Jews exodus out of Egypt. I compare that to the threat for Solange and her future Fiancé. They used it to help them escape the looming Nazi occupation as they traveled to America.”
The Velvet Hours places the characters and objects into a fact filled story. Richman has created a rich Paris setting with memorable characters within a time period beginning in 1888 and ending in 1938.