Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Kathleen Tessaro The Perfume Collector: fragrance book review

Grace Munroe. Eva d'Orsey. One English and pampered into false security. The other French-countryside-born and exiled in New York, serving to make ends meet. One straight-laced by nurture, yet inquisitive, the other building herself from the bottom up and uninhibited by nature, picking up life lessons wherever she can, from decadent emigrés to call girls. One disillusioned by marriage, the other becoming the mistress of a cosmetics tycoon to help materialize her own plans. But when one inherits the other, though the two have never met, and indeed the heiress has absolutely no idea who this mysterious Eva is, the two lives intermingle and the English rose is in for some coming of age metamorphosis, the French way, with a brisk and brief perfumery introduction lesson in the middle of it. This the central plot of Kathleen Tessaro's new novel The Perfume Collector and if this reminds you vaguely of the journey of finding one's self with the help of French (or Frenchified) style icons after a failed marriage in her earlier novel Elegance it is because it is basically the same theme.

There is simply no way around it. The Anglo-Saxon is mesmerized by the lure of the Continental, with the latter's abandon to sensuality, its convenient compartmentalization of personal life & business and of its Cartesian logic (and non Protestant ethic) while wading through life. Even we have often elaborated on what makes this particular tick tick. And if there is one lesson to be derived is to suck the juice out of the bone of life because life is short, a sentiment with which I can't bring myself to disagree.

"The name, madam..." Eva could hardly say it out loud without blushing. "My Sin". Madame Zed said the words slowly, her black eyes unblinking. "What about it?"Eva hesitated. "It's just...well..what does it mean? What sin?"
 Madame was silent for a moment, looking past Eva, or rather through her, as if she were transparent. Finally she spoke. "Do you know what sin means?"
"To do something wrong?"Madame shook her head. "That's one meaning. But there's another, from the Greek, hamartia, which translates, 'to miss the mark'. That's the meaning I prefer. ""To miss the mark" Eva repeated, committing it to memory.
 "Yes", Madame continued. "We try and fail, like archers who aim for the target but fall short of the mark."Eva watched as she removed the lace shawl. "When you are older and have swum out into the stream of life, you'll see - there are no 'good people', little girl. We're all trying and failing, trying too hard and failing too often. Remember that. We shouldn't judge too harshly, in the end, the sins of others."

Tessaro does a beautiful job of putting the sequence in non-chronological order, starting in media res, and then retracing the tale to its beginnings as the search for the enigmatic Eva is conducted by both Grace and the reader through the flashbacks. To do this comfortably Tessaro breaks down the novel in two distinct narrative viewpoints, Exit to Eden style, and two different time-periods, one following Eva, the other following Grace. One feels that the blue-eyed blonde British K.Tessaro is having a particular pleasure into delving into the brunette territory of Eva, her primal name a nod to her budding but all potent femininity, sometimes to the point of exaggeration.

Bending closer, she gave his shoulder a shake. "Sir!"His eyes opened, blinking to focus. 'I'm sorry, it's only Madame wants you", she explained in a whisper. "She says..."Suddenly he grabed her wrist. "Hush!" And still in a fog of sleep, he pulled her close. Eva pitched forward, into his arms. Valmont inhaled.
 At first her natural seemed straightforward, simply; the slightly acrid, almost creamy aroma of a child's damp skin. But underneath that, a rich, musky element seeped through, unfolding slowly; widening and expanding to a profound, primitive, animalistic essence. The sheer range and complexity of her odour was astonishing. The effct, intensely arousing. It was the most compelling, deeply sensual thing Valmont had ever encountered. 
Eva pushed him away, horrified. "What are you doing?""You smell..." he murmured. "Yes, thank you!" She scrambled to her feet. "I hardly need you to tell me that!" she hissed. "Madame wants to see you...""No, you don't understand". He reached for her again; short sharp intakes now, savouring the notes, rolling them round on his olfactory palette. "It's unique. Completely unique.""Get off!" Eva swatted him.
 Suddenly something shifted in the bed; a body. The person next to him stretched out and rolled over onto their stomach. 
It was another man. 

The novel isn't devoid of some weaknesses, easily overlooked when regarded within its genre nevertheless. The pivotal scene of discovering the abandoned perfume shop -owned by perfumer to Eva D'Orsey Andre Valmont- is rather contrived. The name Valmont by itself is eerily problematic, bearing as it does no reference to Laclos's infamous hero (the mind being predestined to forever associate it with him), as it pertains to a homosexual Jewish youth apprentice (and later celebrated perfumer) who becomes Eva's entry to the magical world of smells. Of course Eva d'Orsey herself reflects the D'Orsay perfume brand (and I had to correct myself in each and every instance I typed her name for this review), though not deliberately. But the invention of the back story of the mysterious Russian Madame Zed (actually a real person, possibly of French origin, named Marie Zede, at the helm of the Lanvin perfume story back then), met at the height of her fame in New York city, is satisfying enough to forgive these minor quibbles.

Throughout one gets the impression the author has always had a peripheral interest to scents (if her pivotal mention of one in her previous novel Elegance is any indication, since I'm unfamiliar with the rest) but needed to stumble upon the online perfume aficionado community to get the juices going and to borrow the lingual framework on which to build her descriptions. Some phrases ring rather modern when describing conversations with people involved in the industry in as far back as the 1920s and the 1950s. But if the reader is a casual one and not a follower of every board and blog concerning fragrance and smell, this gets bypassed easily. What is perhaps more apparent to the average eye is the awe-struck descriptions of Paris, as recounted by the impressionable heroine Grace Munroe, to the point where London is chastised for having "bundled" its monuments tightly together (an observation which as a formerly frequent visitor to the city left me surprised) and the Parisian weather glossed over while the heiress lunches al fresco at every opportunity. There's a missed opportunity there to go on an tangent and report a lay woman's impressions on some of the intelligentsia of the Parisian 1950s, but we're dealing with chick lit and Tessaro handles her weapons knowingly and with ease.

All in all, The Perfume Collector doesn't disappoint. It's an easily paced read whose prose doesn't suffer the way it would in a less skilled author's hands and which should keep you good company on the chaise-longue while sunbathing or on the train ride commuting to work, eradicating the grayness and the city torpor via fantasy.

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro is available for purchase  on Amazon on this link.

Photo Perfume store. Photographs by Hans Wild. From the historical archives of LIFE Magazine 1947.
Disclosure: I was sent a copy for reviewing purposes. 


  1. Miss Heliotrope02:02

    Glad you read it, not me.

    I find that the current/past double story with the current discovering the past has become a little too cliche-ish, and is not often done that well. It's a clever idea, and appears in a range of novels, from Booker-winning to not so, but too often follows the exact plot of person from the more modern period uncovering the past only to find that particular past is part of her now...surely one day someone could spend 300 pages uncovering something that has absolutely nothing to do with her own life? & why do they never find that their past is influenced by the family members they already know about? Or a washerwoman or undergardner rather than someone more sexy?

    Thanks for the review, though.

  2. Now that Miss Heliotrope mentioned it, I noticed that trend too and it's starting to annoy me.
    The latest being Seduction by MJ Rose where we go back and forth until at certain moment the stories will converge. BUt I keep losing interest and have switched over to Dan Brown's Inferno which has a completely new set of annoying things but at least it's action packed. :)

  3. MH,

    it does score on the originality stakes, for sure, but it's a decently written chick lit opus at least (much better than some I browsed). I kinda think the readers here are a bit more sophisticated, but a light read should be adequately written any way.
    I do think that like the Oulipo group had hypothesized the only possible plot device for the roman policier was for the reader to be the murderer, the only possible originality for the two converging plots would be what you suggest...It's anyone's guess whether that would sell, though, and I'm afraid publishers are only interested in selling these days (hence the overabundance of sci fi, chuck lit and biographies to the dearth of all other genres).

  4. Ines,

    you're a brave soul. I was slapping myself silly while (finally) succumbing to the Da Vinci Code.

  5. annemariec01:08

    I enjoyed being immersed in stories about perfume from the great age of early and mid-twentieth century perfumery that I was willing to overlook the wobbles with plot and characterisation. I did especially enjoy the concept of Eva being a 'scent muse' to a perfumer. Funny thing, I smelled my 14-year-old son's hair this morning and even though it was freshly washed, it was an especially complex scent. That passage in the book about Eva's scent makes total sense to me.

  6. Anonymous02:20

    I am actually in the middle of reading this novel and I believe I've figured out the ending early on....also smelling Eva's body scent: wasn't this newly done in the novel Perfume? I liked Elegance by KT so much better so far.....P@W

  7. Anonymous02:23

    I forgot to mention : I love the cover graphic which is so appropriate and so 1950"s. P@W


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