Published: September 6th, 2016 by Berkley | Series: N/A | Length: 384 pages | Genre: Adult fiction, historical fiction | Source: I received a copy from Penguin’s First to Read program.
Summary from Goodreads:
As Paris teeters on the edge of the German occupation, a young French woman closes the door to her late grandmother’s treasure-filled apartment, unsure if she’ll ever return.
An elusive courtesan, Marthe de Florian cultivated a life of art and beauty, casting out all recollections of her impoverished childhood in the dark alleys of Montmartre. With Europe on the brink of war, she shares her story with her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, using her prized possessions to reveal her innermost secrets. Most striking of all are a beautiful string of pearls and a magnificent portrait of Marthe painted by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini. As Marthe’s tale unfolds, like velvet itself, stitched with its own shadow and light, it helps to guide Solange on her own path.
Inspired by the true account of an abandoned Parisian apartment, Alyson Richman brings to life Solange, the young woman forced to leave her fabled grandmother’s legacy behind to save all that she loved.
First of all, thank you Penguin for giving me an ARC of this through First to Read!
I’m sure a lot of you know by now that I love WWII historical fiction. So when I saw this book, I couldn’t help but request it from Penguin. However, the first half or so really has nothing to do with WWII. This is told in dual POV: some chapters focus more on Marthe and what her life was like and the others focus on Solange, Marthe’s granddaughter, and her present-day life. The first half focused a lot more on Marthe’s life as a young woman and Solange getting to know her biological grandmother. Once we get further into the book, it begins to focus solely on Solange and her life in France at the beginning of WWII.
I have mixed feelings about this book. Really mixed feelings. For the first third or so, I seriously thought about DNFing it because I found it excruciatingly boring. It went on and on about Marthe being a married man’s mistress which, quite frankly, I found boring and uninteresting. However, the last half of this book was really, really good.
As horrible as it may sound, once things started getting hard for Marthe and once the war started affecting Solange’s life, I found things a lot more fascinating. I won’t go into too much detail because I want to avoid spoiling anything, but I like to see characters struggle. Without struggle, the characters fall flat and their lives just seem boring. I found the beginning boring because it really just seemed like the author was showing Marthe as this young woman whose only concern was keeping her man happy. Yawn. When things picked up and the war started to cause concern and make people nervous and other more general life problems occurred, I was a lot more interested in the story.
I can’t write a review of this book without at least mentioning how wonderfully it handled questions of identity and relationships. Throughout the whole story, these are two very prominent themes. Solange’s father (and Marthe’s son) was adopted and Solange didn’t know that her mother was Jewish until recently, so we get to see her really struggle with understanding where in the world she fits in and who she fits in with. Should she consider herself half-Jewish even though she knows nothing about being Jewish? Will other people consider her Jewish? Is it okay for her to develop a relationship with Marthe, her biological grandmother, even though Marthe & Solange’s father have almost no relationship? These are all things we get to see Solange grapple with throughout the novel.
Speaking of adoption… this is where one of my major problems with the book comes into play. We find out within the first couple of pages that Solange’s father is adopted. Okay. When he finds out he’s 18 years old and is quite upset and bothered to find out that the people he has known as his parents for the past 18 years are not his biological parents. Okay, I can understand that. But then he meets his biological mother and they don’t get along well at all. There’s basically no connection there at all. But this doesn’t stop him from changing his last name because the one he’s been using his whole life is “fake.” And when he later has a daughter, he gives her the last name of the biological mother that he doesn’t like, instead of the adoptive mother who he seemed to have no problems with! This just seemed like such a negative portrayal of adoptive families to me. It seemed to really be furthering the stereotype that your adoptive family isn’t your “real” family and that your biological family is, no matter how much you do or don’t get along with them. It just really, really bothered me. And even though it doesn’t play a big role throughout the book, I couldn’t let it go.
One thing that I did really like though was that books play a huge role in the story. As an avid reader, I love when characters really like to read or when books are mentioned just casually in the novel. In The Velvet Hours, Solange loves to read and write and feels the most connected to her deceased mother when reading the books she left behind. We later meet some characters who run a bookstore and one character who restores old books. Basically, books play a huge role in the story and I couldn’t have been happier with that.
This wasn’t a bad book by any means and once I got towards the end, I was really, really enjoying it. I just wish the beginning hadn’t been so slow. I’d still recommend giving this a shot if you like historical fiction and/or books that explore identity.