Synopsis of The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro: A remarkable novel about secrets, desire, memory, passion, and possibility.
Newlywed Grace Monroe doesn’t fit anyone’s expectations of a successful 1950s London socialite, least of all her own. When she receives an unexpected inheritance from a complete stranger, Madame Eva d’Orsey, Grace is drawn to uncover the identity of her mysterious benefactor.
Weaving through the decades, from 1920s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris, and London, the story Grace uncovers is that of an extraordinary women who inspired one of Paris’s greatest perfumers. Immortalized in three evocative perfumes, Eva d’Orsey’s history will transform Grace’s life forever, forcing her to choose between the woman she is expected to be and the person she really is.
The Perfume Collector explores the complex and obsessive love between muse and artist, and the tremendous power of memory and scent.
My two cents
'There is nothing like it,' Valmont said, turning over to look at Eva. 'You see, don't you? The world is defined by smells -- not words or shapes or sounds. This is the language that makes sense, that everyone understands. - p. 339 (ARC, page may change)The backbone of this novel -- the profound power of scent -- is what initially drew me to it. I breathed in the essence of this book deeply, and fell in love with it.
This is the tale of two women -- two totally disparate women who move in different countries and circles and generations -- whose lives converge in a mysterious and yet not unlikely manner. Grace Monroe, newlywed Londoner and socialite-in-the-making, is an heir to a complete stranger, Frenchwoman Eva d’Orsey. Grace travels to Paris to discover that she is not only been left a substantial inheritance but moreso a mystery that is begging to be solved: who is Eva d’Orsey?
We are then pulled into two storylines, flipping between Grace's 1950s London life and Eva's late-1920s New York beginnings. The mystery deepens. What is this mysterious box of trinkets that is handed to Grace? What are the three fragrances going to reveal?
As events masterly unfold in these two streams, we are drawn into two fascinating lives that are inextricably entwined in a painful past and the relationship between Eva and Grace come to light. And as Grace slowly uncovers the truth about her benefactor, she wrestles to come to terms with these realizations.
I loved how the whole perfume thread held this all together. The richly descriptive language used simply echoes the sensual descriptions of the fragrances.
I thoroughly enjoyed the world of scent portrayed in this book, a world that I'd love to learn more about. From how Eva discovers her acute sense of smell, her romance with perfume and her shared passion with Valmont for the beauty that is scent -- these all show the art of perfume making, just like a musician or a painter finding his muse and creating his obra maestra. It's a sensual and romantic world.
The three perfumes that come into Grace's possession actually hold secrets and the mysterious way these scents play into the storyline, triggering intimate memories and associations and stripping away layer after layer of the past, was very clever.
Eva and Grace are both misfits and tragic characters in their own way. I found both of them fascinating characters both because they not only break the mold, but have brilliant minds, and are defiant to the expectations that society dictates of them.
Grace is already finding that she's a misfit to socialite life; the expectation that her "job" is to be a "wife" fills her with dread. Being "pretty," the latest fashions, organizing social events and all the trappings of uppercrust existence bore her. With a marriage already starting to get rocky despite its amorous beginnings, Grace is looking for an exit. The unexpected inheritance provides her with a welcome diversion.
Eva D'Orsey, orphaned and forced to work at a young age as a hotel maid in clothes much too big for her belie her brilliant mind and an untapped ambition. Despite being told to disappear into the woodwork, she comes into contact with a renowned perfumer and her apprentice as well as some other interesting personalities, people who shape who she is and she strikes out on her own.
I started seeing similarities in them early on: Eva noticing patterns in the tiles, Grace able to memorize and describe a tray full of items after only a minute of seeing things. I wondered, speculated, and the author kept throwing red herrings in the path. Despite already knowing the obvious, I still enjoyed the unfolding of the story to its rather predictable conclusion.
I've fallen in love with this story and am declaring it as among my favourite reads for the year. In fact when I finished this, I went ahead and marked it 5 stars on Goodreads ... I had a "book hangover" and somehow wished I hadn't rushed through it ... it was over too soon! My review will never do justice to this story so I do hope you're able to get your hands on this gem of a novel!
Verdict: This is a gorgeous book all around. Historical fiction buff, you'll be immersed in 1920s New York and 1950s Paris. Sensualist, you'll revel in the descriptions of scents and their intimate power to transport you in time and place. Story lover, you'll discover how the lives of these seemingly totally different women are entwined. A story to savour languidly.
About Kathleen Tessaro
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I received an Advance Reader Copy from TLC Books Tours in exchange for an honest review.
The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro
Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: Harper (May 14, 2013)
Publisher: Harper (May 14, 2013)