The Vel­vet Hours

  • Review
May 3, 2016

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.

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