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“The Velvet Hours” by Alyson Richman is historical fiction, set in a real-life Paris apartment in the 9th arrondissement that had been abandoned for more than 70 years. Though the apartment was abandoned, rent was paid until just a few years ago.

The story is about an elusive courtesan, Marthe de Florian, who started out in poverty as Mathilde Héloïse Beaugiron in the alleys of Montmarte, then cultivated a life filled with art and beauty. She used her looks to capture the attention of a wealthy patron, Charles, who set her up in the apartment and provided her with the means to continue to live there.

Decades later, with Europe on the brink of war, Marthe shares her story with her granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron, using her prized possessions collected over the years to reveal her innermost secrets. Most striking among these are a string of pearls and a beautiful portrait of Marthe painted by Italian artist Giovanni Boldini.

The painting, discovered when the apartment was opened in 2010, sold for €3 million.

In an interview with Architectural Digest in 2016, Ms. Richman said, “The inspiration for ‘The Velvet Hours’ began after a dear friend sent an article about an apartment in Paris that was discovered in 2010, which had been mysteriously shuttered for 70 years.

“When the apartment was finally opened, all of its elegant antiques and objet d’arts were a time capsule buried under a veil of dust. Above the mantel was a magnificent painting of the original owner, a courtesan named Marthe de Florian, by the 19th-century painter Giovanni Boldini. Letters written by the artist were also found in her bedroom vanity. I was immediately drawn to the question of who was Marthe de Florian? How did she come to [own such a glamorous apartment in the 9th arrondissement] and also be painted by the famous Boldini? My curiosity wouldn’t cease until I finished writing the book.”

The setting, the artifacts and the characters are vividly described throughout the story. Ms. Richman’s focus on detail makes the scenes stand out, and her use of symbolism makes the plot even more mysterious.

Told in alternating time periods, “The Velvet Hours” is the story of two independent women, Marthe and Solange, facing their pasts in the midst of the
world at war.