I well remember the news stories of Marthe de Florian’s Paris apartment that was opened for the first time in decades, an unexpected time capsule of the past. As a former history teacher, it fascinated me. When I read about The Velvet Hours, Alyson Richman’s novel imagining her life and that of her granddaughter Solange, whose death in 2010, revealed the apartment to world.
Solange is a young woman whose mother has recently died. To draw her out of her grief, he takes her to meet his biological mother Marthe de Florian, who gave him up at birth. She is a woman of the demimonde, elegant, beautiful and refined. Solange spends hours with her grandmaman, listening to her stories of her great love affair and the fabulous painting of her that hangs over her mantle. Solange, intrigued by her story, hopes to write a novel of her grandmother’s life.
Meanwhile, while the Belle Epoque continues in Marthe’s apartment, the rest of the world is heading toward World War II. There are many stories of pre-World War II Paris, the anxiety about if or when the Germans would invade, whether the Maginot Line would hold. For Parisian Jews, the anxiety was even more intense. The Velvet Hours attempts to capture that anxiety when Solange discovers her recently deceased mother was Jewish and falls in love with Alex, a Jewish son of a bookseller who knew her maternal grandfather.
This is a good novel, interesting and absorbing. It is fascinating to get this glimpse of the writer/research process. I read that article. I was fascinated. I googled for photos of the apartment and the painting. I was not inspired to create a fictional life, to write a novel, to imagine a completely different life for the two women. That is what makes novelists different from the rest of us.
I liked The Velvet Hours, but I did not love it. There was a dreamlike feeling to much of it, a drifting through life while the world is falling apart, until the Germans invade. Then things speed up. However, the love affair with Alex felt more like a plot device. I did not understand why she loved him or he loved her. Their relationship was just a reason to draw Solange toward Judaism and the risk of Nazi anti-semitism. I thought it was unnecessary.
So much effort was spent on Marthe that when other suffered tragedy it felt exploitive. The people involved in them were so peripheral to the story that their tragedy felt exploitive. We did not fall in love with them, so their tragedy did not break our hearts. Their tragedy merely served to give a luster of tragedy and meaning to Solange, and for me, that is exploitive even if they are simply imagined people. She can get her depth some other way.
The Velvet Hours will be released on September 6th. I received an advance uncorrected proof from the publisher through a drawing at GoodReads.