Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Velvet Hours

Title:  The Velvet Hours
Author:  Alyson Richman
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2016. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0425266265 / 978-0425266267

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Outside, I could hear the sound of airplanes, and their rumble filled me with unease."

Favorite Quote:  "Perspective is a tool used far too infrequently. If people had the courage to alternate their lens every now and then, the world would be a far more beautiful place."

The Velvet Hours is a story of two women across time like so many other books. Letters from Paris, The Dollhouse, The House Between Tides, and The Light of Paris all take a similar structure. All have a family or a place, a story of the past and a story of the present, and a woman in the past and a woman now (whenever the "now" for the book is, that is).

In this case, the book is a fictionalized story of an actual Paris apartment and two actual women - Marthe de Florian and her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron. The history goes that Marthe de Florian lived in her Paris apartment until her death in 1939. Her son Henri Beaugiron inherited the apartment, and it passed to his daughter Solange Beaugiron. Solange Beaugiron left Paris during World War II, never returning to clear the apartment. The apartment remained locked, with rent and maintenance paid monthly until Solange's Beaugiron's death in 2010. At that time, the family handed over the apartment to auctioneers, and it was opened after decades. The furnishings found represented a time capsule of the period during which Marthe de Florian lived. Perhaps, the most significant item found in the apartment was a previously uncatalogued, undocumented, unexhibited work by artist Giovanni Boldini. The subject was Marthe de Florian herself. The painting sold at auction for $2.1 million, the highest amount for a work by the artist.

The fictional story goes that Martha de Florian has a child when very young and allows him to be adopted into another family. She then reinvents herself and becomes a courtesan or demimondaine. She takes a rich, married lover who sets her up in a beautiful Paris apartment. There she stays, loved and surrounded by beauty far away from her poverty stricken beginnings. Solange is told of her grandmother's existence when she is a teenager. They meet, and Solange begins visiting regularly. With each visit, she learns a bit more of her grandmother's story. Meanwhile, Solange's world is the 1930s in Europe, and the threat of Hitler and a war looms larger and larger.

As with many of these books, the story goes back and forth between the two times and the lives of the two women. Marthe's story is one of survival, of reinvention, and of love; it also intersects the world of art from painting to ceramics to netsuke. Martha de Florian embodies the outlook, "One needn't be born into a beautiful life in order to have one." Solange's story is a story of the beginnings of World War II; it is a story of self-discovery, family secrets, and her own love story. The focus of the book shifts from starting more with Marthe's story and ending primarily with Solange's story. The shift is gradual and natural, but the book does end rather abruptly.

The questions the book does not answer are as intriguing if not more so than the story it does tell. Why did Solange Beaugiron never go back? Why did the apartment remain sealed for decades? Why did she instruct attorneys to continue paying for the apartment? Now, that would be something to create a fiction around.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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