The velvet hours, p.1
The Velvet Hours, p.1Alyson Richman
PRAISE FOR THE VELVET HOURS
“Alyson Richman’s writing sings in her evocative new novel set in Paris at the dawn of World War II. The Velvet Hours is a beautiful and compelling portrait of two women facing their unknown past and an unimaginable future as their world begins to crumble. Heartfelt and romantic.”
—Kristin Hannah, #1 New York Times Bestselling author of The Nightingale
“Alyson Richman deftly weaves fact and fiction to create an enthralling tale of love and sacrifice in The Velvet Hours. Richman slips flawlessly between time periods, her sense of place in depicting Paris in the 1880s and 1940s spot on. The reader navigates the streets of the City of Light alongside Solange and Marthe, two carefully crafted and worthy heroines. The author does a superb job of creating a Paris apartment full of exquisite treasures and a priceless painting, a world of light and shadow, beauty and darkness. Ultimately, this is a carefully wrought story of love, of what the heart chooses to give up, and what it chooses to keep. Highly recommended to readers who enjoyed Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.”
—Karen White, New York Times bestselling author
“A book as full of treasures as the Paris apartment that inspired it. . . . A masterful mix of the glamour of the Belle Epoque and the shadows of impending war as the stories of two generations twist and twine together in delightful, heart-wrenching, and sometimes unexpected ways.”
—Lauren Willig, New York Times bestselling author
MORE PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF ALYSON RICHMAN
“Staggeringly evocative . . . and beautifully written.”
—John Lescroart, New York Times bestselling author
“A truly beautiful, heartfelt story . . . I couldn’t put it down once I started it.”
—Kristin Hannah, New York Times bestselling author
“Moving, unforgettable and so expertly told—this is storytelling at its very best.”
—Sarah Jio, New York Times bestselling author
“Alyson Richman once again triumphs . . . reaching into the heart of the reader with artful portraits of heroism, sacrifice, and redemption.”
—Pam Jenoff, international bestselling author
“If you love graceful, mellifluous writing, you should read this book.”
—Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of The Stormchasers
“A meticulous profile of a man struggling against his native culture, his family, and his own sense of responsibility.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“An engrossing examination of the prisons people create for themselves . . . an ambitious exploration of political and personal struggles.”
Books by Alyson Richman
The Mask Carver’s Son
The Rhythm of Memory
The Last Van Gogh
The Lost Wife
The Garden of Letters
The Velvet Hours
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
Copyright © 2016 by Alyson Richman
“Readers Guide” copyright © 2016 by Penguin Random House LLC
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Richman, Alyson, author.
Title: The velvet hours / Alyson Richman.
Description: Berkley trade paperback edition. | New York : Berkley Books, 2016.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016001384 (print) | LCCN 2016005067 (ebook) | ISBN
9780425266267 (softcover) | ISBN 9781101615805 ()
Subjects: LCSH: World War, 1939–1945—France—Paris—Fiction. |
Grandmothers—Fiction. | Storytelling—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION /
Literary. | FICTION / Historical. | FICTION / Jewish. | GSAFD:
Biographical fiction. | Historical fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3568.I3447 V45 2016 (print) | LCC PS3568.I3447 (ebook)
| DDC 813/.54—dc23
LC record available at http://lccn.loc.gov/2016001384
Cover art: Woman © Plainpicture / Glasshouse / Peter Ogilvie; Eiffel Tower © Jeannette Rische / EyeEm / Getty Images
Cover design by Sarah Oberrender
This is a work of fiction. Name, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
In memory of my elegant grandmother,
Hortense Elaine Kleiman
For Charlotte, my beautiful girl.
We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.
Praise for The Velvet Hours
Books by Alyson Richman
Chapter 1: Marthe
Chapter 2: Marthe
Chapter 3: Marthe
Chapter 4: Solange
Chapter 5: Marthe
Chapter 6: Solange
Chapter 7: Marthe
Chapter 8: Solange
Chapter 9: Solange
Chapter 10: Marthe
Chapter 11: Solange
Chapter 12: Marthe
Chapter 13: Solange
Chapter 14: Marthe
Chapter 15: Marthe
Chapter 16: Marthe
Chapter 17: Marthe
Chapter 18: Marthe
Chapter 19: Solange
Chapter 20: Marthe
Chapter 21: Marthe
Chapter 22: Marthe
Chapter 23: Solange
Chapter 24: Solange
Chapter 25: Marthe
Chapter 26: Marthe
Chapter 27: Marthe
Chapter 28: Solange
Chapter 29: Solange
Chapter 30: Solange
Chapter 31: Solange
Chapter 32: Solange
Chapter 33: Marthe
Chapter 34: Marthe
Chapter 35: Marthe
Chapter 36: Marthe
Chapter 37: Solange
Chapter 38: Solange
Chapter 39: Solange
Chapter 40: Solange
Chapter 41: Marthe
Chapter 42: Solange
Chapter 43: Solange
Chapter 54: Solange
Outside, I could hear the sound of airplanes, and their rumble filled me with unease. The only thing worse would be the wail of a bomb siren. I bit my lip and hurried to grab my bag.
I moved through the rooms of my grandmother’s apartment one last time. My finger trailed over the edges of her furniture, my eyes absorbing the image of her beloved porcelains, her carved ornaments, and, lastly, the magnificent portrait of her over the mantel. The only possession of my grandmother’s that I would take with me was hidden underneath the collar of my blouse, and feeling it against my skin gave me courage.
I learned so many things from my grandmother in the few short years I had recently come to know her. She taught me that when making a change in your life, never be sentimental and always be swift. So I took my final glances of all her precious things and reached into my satchel for the key.
As I pulled the heavy door behind me, I thrust the key in the lock. My grandmother’s apartment and her belongings were left as she requested. The place was now sealed like a tomb.
* * *
My new life began the moment I closed the door of that apartment, as I locked my grandmother’s secrets and personal treasures deep within.
It would become yet another buried story in our family of reinventors and name changers, alchemists, and connoisseurs of beauty and love.
My father, a pharmacist, had grown up unaware of his true mother’s existence until he himself was eighteen, when the soft-spoken woman who had raised him presented him a letter written in my grandmother’s hand.
“I made a promise once,” the woman whom he had always believed to be his mother informed him. “And now I must tell you the truth.”
The letter was on heavy, bonded paper, with a small gold butterfly embossed on the top. The return address read 2, Square La Bruyère. The handwriting was flawless. A black fountain pen had rolled over the page in fluid peaks and arabesques.
My dear son, the letter began. By the time you read this, you will have turned eighteen. It’s hard to believe that I had you so many years ago, when I was but a child myself. But it’s important you know I exist. Do not fear, I will not demand you call me “mother.” Madame Franeau is the woman who will always deserve that title, and I make no apologies that I am hardly a shining example of maternal grace. But should you be curious, I am here, always available to meet you.
Her signature was large and marked with flourish. The name was wholly unfamiliar to him. Marthe de Florian.
He folded the paper, straightened his back, and made an effort to disguise his disbelief. It was almost impossible to comprehend that the woman who sat before him was not actually related to him. They both had small brown eyes, thin mouths, and dark hair. They had delicate digestions, and preferred their books and hobbies to the chore of making conversation. They found comfort in small animals, dogs, cats, and birds. And the fact that he chose to study pharmaceuticals seemed natural to all who knew him as a young boy. For he had always loved chemistry—the glass beakers, the mixing, and the science of making things that had the capacity to heal.
Madame Franeau tried to adopt a face of stoicism as she put forth this unexpected revelation to him. Her eyes were wet and glassy as she watched him read the paper, but never once did her tears fall.
“I couldn’t have children of my own,” she finally began. He looked out the window, his face not bearing any expression, but she could see that his thoughts were far away.
“I knew her from the first tailor shop where she worked. We were both seamstresses, and our days were colorless and bleak. We spent countless hours hemming trousers, and adjusting the lengths of sleeves. I was recently married to your father . . .” She stumbled over the words. The word “father” caught in her throat, as though after so many years of it being the truth, it was now suddenly a lie. “She wasn’t married and had little means of support, and we were overjoyed to have a child to raise. Her only stipulation was that you learn the truth when you came of age.” She paused and took a deep breath.
“I will not be hurt if you want to meet her. She has since become so different than I . . .” Her voice trailed away. “She belongs to another world. One difficult for me to explain.”
He spent the next several days looking at the letter. He would withdraw it from his desk during breaks from studying and gaze at Marthe’s full, scripted hand.
Only after he had finished the last of his entrance exams to the school of pharmacy did he decide to write her a reply.
His stationery was not as heavy, nor his handwriting as grand. On a simple sleeve of white paper he wrote:
Madame de Florian, I would like to visit you next Tuesday at four o’clock. Please let me know if you might be free. As you know, I have recently learned it is a falsehood for me to use the last name “Franeau.” So I will close this letter with what Madame Franeau has informed me is in fact, my real last name.
* * *
When he called on her at her apartment, a housemaid opened the door and led him inside. The air was heavy with the fragrance of flowers, and the space was crowded with collections and curios from exotic lands. Even before she appeared, he felt ill at ease. There were just too many things. Too much velvet and satin. His childhood home had been a simple place: a bedroom with a wooden desk and bookshelves, and a living room with modest but tasteful furniture. A kitchen with a warm stove.
Now he felt as though he was entering a secret theater, one in which he clearly did not belong. Heavy drapes cascaded over the tall windows, which made it difficult to gauge whether it was night or day outside. His breathing began to escalate as he waited for her. He looked at the collections of Asian porcelains on the shelves, then the large portrait of a beautiful woman over the mantel painted with exuberant brushstrokes, and he was struck by its palette of sensual colors, its feeling of vibrancy and heat. He was about to move closer to examine it, when he became distracted by the sound of rustling silk and the striking of measured footsteps against the parquet floor.
“Henri,” a voice emerged. There, standing before him, was Marthe dressed in a soft pink dress, her neck roped in pearls.
They stood, several paces from each other. Her gaze was one of appraisal, as if she were looking at him as an object she may or may not choose to buy.
“Well, now . . . you look nothing as I had imagined!” She let out a gentle laugh. “But I suspect neither do I.”
He was unable to reply.
* * *
If my calculations are correct, she must have been close to forty when my father first met her, though it is impossible for me to know that for sure. Even when I met Marthe years later, she claimed to be an age that would have been impossible given my father’s age and my own. But this was certainly not the first step in her reinvention. As I would eventually learn from her, one needn’t be born into a beautiful life in order to have one.
* * *
I met my grandmother in the last months of 1938, when I had just turned nineteen years old, a few years before everything in Europe would smolder under Hitler’s torch. Her existence came as a complete surprise to me, like a hidden steamer trunk that was suddenly pulled down from an attic and opened to reveal a forgotten treasure.
My father spent most of his hours running his small pharmacy on Rue Jacob. Since my mother’s death, he had struggled to find ways to occupy me, his only daughter. I had finished my schooling five months before, and now spent my days dreaming of adventures and writing down imagined stories and plays.
We were mutually frustrated with each other, and my restlessness only made it worse. At night, when he returned home from work, all he wanted was solitu
When I complained one evening about the lack of excitement in my life, he seemed to be on the brink of despair.
“I’m sorry I can’t be more entertaining.” The exasperation in his voice was apparent, and it was clear he was unprepared for the trials of rearing a daughter on his own.
For a moment we sat across from each other without speaking, his eyes focusing on the tower of bookshelves before finally settling on me. At first, I thought he was thinking of my mother. The woman who had kept his house tidy, cooked his meals, and nurtured my love of books. But then, something unexpected happened.
The light in my father’s eyes shifted. It was as though he had stumbled upon an elixir in a forgotten cabinet in his shop, and he believed this tonic might have the power to alleviate the ennui that plagued me.
“I know someone I believe you’ll find interesting . . . Perhaps she’ll even give you some material for your writing . . . I haven’t seen her in quite some time, but I will write and see if she will meet you.”
Three days later he walked into my bedroom with a letter in his hand.
“Tomorrow, we’ll visit someone you will not believe is actually related to me. But it’s the truth,” he said, as if he, too, could not quite believe the veracity of his statement.
“And who might that be?” I asked, perplexed.
“You’ll finally meet the woman who bore me. Marthe de Florian.”
* * *
The next day, after our lunch, we set off for Chaussée d’Antin in the ninth arrondissement of Paris, where Madame de Florian’s apartment was located. On the way, he told me he never thought of her as anything more than the woman who had given birth to him, as they had been estranged from each other most of his life.
“The only thing we share is her original last name,” he told me as he shook his head. “But even that is something she’s changed along the way.”
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