REVIEW: The Perfume Collector by Katharine Tessaro

Sunday, June 30, 2013 0:00
Posted in category Review

Book CoverLynneC’s review of The Perfume Collector by Katharine Tessaro
Women’s Fiction published by HarperCollins 14 May 13

I picked up this ARC because it had such a striking cover, and because the theme interested me. Perfume and memory. I wear old formula Guerlain perfumes, like Shalimar and Mitsouko, and I used to love Chamade, but it became difficult to get hold of. Samsara’s my everyday perfume. Even though they’ve changed the formula, they still work on me. Other perfumes make me sneeze. Even Chanel No. 5 does, because I think that instead of using whale snot, cat pee and deer sexual organs to bind and deepen, they’re using chemicals because they tell us that they’re the same. But they’re not. They’re shallower. Modern perfumes lack the subtlety that the older ones do, and they don’t bind on the skin. They can smell the same on everyone.

The only jarring note in this book is that the author seems to think that everyone smells the same if they wear the same perfume. They don’t, or rather shouldn’t. The different tones in the skin make a perfume smell very different. The top notes tend to stay the same, but the richer, deeper, more lasting ones don’t. Never, ever economize on perfume. Wear the good stuff or eau de cologne or nothing at all. That person sitting behind you having a sneezing fit is me.

Anyway, on to the book. This is not a romance, it’s a women’s fiction book, but it does contain a very understated, tender romance that stole my heart. It’s set in 1956-7, at least some of the story is. It’s also a story about another woman, but more on that later.

Grace is a well-born woman who lives with her husband Roger in Woburn Square in London. They live an upper-middle-class life, but right from the start the reader is made aware that Roger is not the kind of man Grace needs. He’s too ambitious, probably married her because she was the kind of wife that he needed, except that she’s not as dextrous with the social graces as he’d like. That’s all conveyed without the reader meeting him. Roger turns up late in the story, and when it opens, he’s on a business trip in Scotland.

Grace finds out about Roger’s transgression in a shocking and humiliating way. She’s demonstrating a skill she has, something nobody has put a name to yet in her time, but we’d know as an eidetic memory. It’s a great scene, recreating one of the great London hostesses of the twentieth century (Elsa Maxwell, I’m thinking). In fact, there are delightful references throughout the book to people and things that are echoes in memory. One debauched character is called Lamb, and although he’s male, he has a lot in common with Byron’s lover, Lady Caroline Lamb. Touches like that kept me reading, and they are clever touches. If you don’t get the reference, it doesn’t matter, but if you do, it adds and enriches the story a little bit, adds metaphors that are so understated they’re easily missed.

When Grace discovers she’s received an unexpected legacy, she travels to Paris to investigate. The legacy is from a woman she’s never heard of, and it’s substantial. Stocks and shares, and a Paris apartment, both valuable. She stays at a hotel, and her best friend, Mallory, keeps in touch and comes to stay with her at one point, to get a bit of Paris, shop, and sight-see.

I like Mallory. She’s a true friend, different to Grace but sympathetic, doing what’s needed when it’s needed, and always thinking of what Grace wants. She isn’t perfect, and she isn’t a foil, either. Grace doesn’t share everything with her, and their friendship strikes me as one of the truest I’ve read in some time.

Discovering a past she knew nothing about comes as a revelation to Grace, and to us, as we explore the legacy of the woman, Eva d’Orsey (another clever reference with a non-linear link!), and how she came to own a goodly amount. The people she knew and the path she took in life are delineated beautifully, from her first job at fourteen as a chambermaid in a New York hotel catering to the Zeigfeld Follies girls and other showbizzy and Bohemian types to her last as sales manager to one of Paris’s premier perfumiers (not a spoiler – you learn that quite early on).

There is also an East Lynne section later on, which I feel doesn’t fit too well and isn’t really needed, but most books have a few of those, and it does mean the reader gets a closer insight into Grace’s childhood.

Most of the charm in this book is its understatement. The lives of the frankly debauched are sketched, spaces are left for the reader to fill in. But it’s like drawing a line between dots—not too much is left that you can’t see the next space. Truly terrible things are described in a way that makes the reader pause and think.

Perfume is a thread in this book, the central link, but unlike Patrick Suskind’s book, this is a book about people who love perfume and how it can enhance a person, particularly a woman. Not always pleasant, but the way a perfume can immediately evoke a memory is used to great effect.

Even the black moment is lightly sketched, but there is one, a time when Grace must make a decision that will affect her whole life, and she does. I won’t tell you which way she jumps. It wouldn’t be fair.

The background of England and France in the fifties and New York in the twenties is almost part of the story. It’s there to be experienced, and it’s lovely, kept me reading through the night and finishing it the next day. It’s beautifully evoked, right down to everyone smoking their heads off (to claim otherwise wouldn’t have been realistic). At one point Grace wears a black Balenciaga, the man known as “the designer’s designer,” and I wanted the dress. Sculptural simplicity. She is very real and a character I really want to root for.

If we’re doing “best of year” again, I have three now. This time last year I think I had one. So it’s a good year. Get this one, it’s absolutely lovely.

LynneCs iconGrade: A

Summary:

London,1955: Grace Monroe is a very fortunate young woman. In spite of a sheltered upbringing in Oxford, her recent marriage has thrust her into the heart of London’s most refined and ambitious social circles, where alliances are formed and reputations made. However, playing the role of the sophisticated socialite her husband would like her to be doesn’t come naturally to her – and perhaps never will.

 Then one evening, a letter arrives from a law firm in Paris. Grace has received an unanticipated inheritance. Only her benefactor, Frenchwoman Eva d’Orsey, is a complete stranger to her. Grace dismisses it as a mistake. However, when later that same night, she suddenly suspects her husband of infidelity, her world is thrown into chaos.

 Fleeing London for Paris, Grace searching for information about the mysterious Eva d’Orsey. What she uncovers is the remarkable history of an unconventional woman who inspired one of Paris’s greatest perfumers. Only Eva’s past and Grace’s future intersect. And soon Grace must chose between the life she thinks she ought to live or becoming the person she truly is.

Told in three distinctive perfumes, the story weaves through the decades, from 1920’s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris and London; revealing the complex, obsessive love between muse and artist and the tremendous power of memory and scent.

Read an excerpt.

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