Alyson Richman’s new novel The Velvet Hours is based upon a remarkable news story that would inspire any writer of historical fiction to put pen to paper. In 2014, an apartment in Paris was opened for the first time since the Second World War. Every detail of the apartment had been left untouched, from the artworks on the walls to the love letters carefully concealed in a drawer, tied up in satin ribbon. Described as a ‘time capsule’, the apartment was an unblemished testament to France’s Belle-Epoque. Alyson Richman’s beautifully crafted novel makes the most of the tantalizing mystery surrounding that forgotten home, drawing the reader into the lives of two very different women and the fragile worlds they inhabited.
At the heart of the novel are the two heroines – Marthe and her teenage granddaughter, Solange. Marthe is a young woman born into terrible poverty whose life becomes an act of perpetual deception in her desperation to disassociate herself from the drudgery into which she was born. She becomes the mistress of a wealthy man, her every waking moment devoted to pleasing the man who keeps her; keeping herself beautiful and youthful, wearing the finest clothes, finding ways to arouse him and keep him interested in her sexually. Everything down to Marthe’s assumed name is fake and for all the luxury with which she cushions herself from the world, she is essentially a rich man’s play thing, pampered and indulged but intensely vulnerable.
Solange, by contrast, has had a humbler upbringing, the much-loved daughter of a pharmacist, and her journey is one of self-discovery. Unlike her grandmother, she is caught up in the tumultuous world around her and she is on a mission to seek out her true identity, having discovered that all is not as it seemed. Her dead mother’s favorite book, an ancient text written in Hebrew, leads Solange to the Jewish quarter of Paris and her own buried past, almost as though the writers of that book hundreds of years before had lit a beacon for her, calling her home.
Richman’s stunningly rich prose artfully conjures up an age of high culture, art, literature and extravagant fashions, interlacing the decadent life of a nineteenth century courtesan with the more Spartan, unsettled months before France’s humiliation at the hands of the Nazis. The intricate details of the clothing, social mores and interior decoration of the time have been meticulously researched, the meeting of different cultures is convincingly and lovingly depicted, as is the difference between the two women, the lives they embrace and the men they love.
The whole text has a wistful quality overlaid by a mournful sense of the coming disaster. Solange’s discovery of her Jewish past is a troubling revelation in 1938 and does not bode well for a happy ending, creating a feeling not just of foreboding but of near panic for the reader during much of the second half of the book. However, the heart-breaking finale with Solange and her new-found Jewish friends facing the horrifying prospect of becoming trapped, still manages to come as a shock. It is never easy for an author to write about the final days before a tragedy without assuming a lever of understanding from characters that they would never have had, but thanks largely to this author’s skill as a storyteller, it is possible to imagine something of what life might have been like on the streets of a great European city, before the full horror of occupation and the Final Solution were unleashed.
My biggest complaint about the novel is that I found the character of Marthe to be much more vividly depicted than Solange. This is partly because it is Marthe’s life not Solange’s which is the central focus of the novel, but Solange is such an interesting character – a lonely teenager and budding writer with no hiding place from the destructive forces closing in on her – that I longed to be able to journey a little more deeply into her own interior life and upbringing.
It is some years now since I last travelled to Paris, but this book made me long to walk the Champs d’Elysee again – preferably wearing a silk dress with plenty of petticoats.
The Velvet Hours
by Alyson Richman
Paperback, 384 pages
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