Inspired by the true story of an abandoned, treasure-filled Parisian apartment that sat untouched for decades, The Velvet Hours is a soaring, sumptuous novel about love, art, family, and sacrifice. From Europe of the Belle Époque to 1940s Paris on the brink of World War II, Alyson Richman takes us on a journey of memory and second chances.
“It would become yet another buried story in our family of reinventors and name changers, alchemists, and connoisseurs of beauty and love.” So begins the story of Solange, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a Parisian pharmacist who, in the final months of 1938, discovers the paternal grandmother she never knew she had. Solange, who has lost her own beloved mother, is immediately charmed by the mysterious Marthe de Florian, living by herself in remarkable luxury. And Marthe, reaching the final chapter of her life, finds herself equally captivated with Solange, offering, “You come to me once a week, and I will tell you how I, a girl born in the dark alleys of Montmartre, came to be ensconced in this apartment.” A fascinating tale unfolds and Solange, a budding writer, is enthralled: “Those hours were like velvet to me. Stories spun of silken thread, her own light and darkness, unabashedly drawn.”
But Solange soon discovers that the insular beauty and security of her grandmother’s apartment is in stark contrast to the realities of the outside world. When Solange researches the provenance of a priceless fourteenth-century Haggadah left behind by her Jewish mother, she learns of the family rift caused by her mother’s marriage to a gentile. With lavish descriptions of art and antiques, The Velvet Hours explores how art binds people together, posing the idea that material things have the potential not only to bring meaning to our lives, but to save them.
Ironically, just as Solange begins to delve into her mother’s rich heritage — and her own — Europe begins caving in to Hitler, putting the lives of all Parisian Jews in danger. Suddenly, Solange’s Jewish identity takes on unimaginable importance. With this turn of events, The Velvet Hours deftly raises the question of who we are versus whom we perceive ourselves to be.
In the end, The Velvet Hours is a love letter to the stories we tell and the stories we keep. It poses the idea that even the most well-intentioned life can hold guilt, and even the most aimless can find absolution. Imaginative, rich, and emotionally satisfying, The Velvet Hours is a treasure.