Last week, I loaned out my copy of Kathleen Tessaro’s lovely 2013 novel The Perfume Collector to two friends; the first one to borrow it ended up buying it for her e-reader, the other one told me that she was close to the final pages but was reading it very slowly because she just didn’t want it to end!
The novel moves effortlessly between Paris in the spring of 1955, and New York City in 1927 (and beyond). Young, Oxford-reared socialite Grace is newly married and restless in her role of supportive wife when word comes from Paris that she is the sole beneficiary of the estate of a woman she has never heard of and to whom she can determine no ties that bind. At the request of Edouard A. Tissot, Esquire, of the law firm Frank, Levin et Beaumont (who is handling the estate), she tentatively travels from her home in London, purportedly to sign the necessary papers but mainly to find out more about this mysterious inheritance which she suspects may involve a case of mistaken identity. While in Paris, and with Monsieur Tissot’s help, Grace begins to uncover bits and pieces about the intriguing recluse who has named Grace her heir.
Eva d’Orsey. Mistress to Jacques Hiver, owner of one of the most glamorous cosmetic companies in France. We meet Eva close to 30 years earlier in New York, when, at age 14, the immigrant orphan is taken on as a chambermaid at the posh Warwick Hotel in the heart of the city. At the Warwick, Eva is exposed to wealth and avarice in silks and sequins: dancers, performers, actors, gamblers, politicians, prostitutes and other hangers on, each with their own quirks and debaucheries. Quiet Eva discretely performs her duties even as she keeps track of all that is going on around her.
How the life of this guileless young hotel maid becomes entwined a generation later with a sheltered British socialite is the framework on which The Perfume Collector is drawn, and it’s a strong, engaging story. Equally compelling is author Tessaro’s ability to bring to life two cities, two eras and the personalities that fill them, with a razor sharp clarity and gentle humor that eschews sentiment while acknowledging the humanness of even the most glamorous or destitute of characters.
As the fate of the two women draws closer, we see them as separate people, one breathlessly, warily open to possibility, the other struggling to fill a well defined role in which she is uncomfortable. Yet they have their commonalities, too. Both are smart, observant, and within the confines of their worlds, unafraid to voice their opinions. Both have an extraordinary way with numbers, which will be a comfort and a bane to each in very different ways. And both are open to wonders that manifest through the senses, although they may not actively seek out those wonders, nor be able to create them.
This wonderment is beautifully articulated by the importance of perfume in the story line. While at the Hotel, Eva is assigned to service the suite of the ambiguous, aristocratic Russian master perfumer, Madame Zed, and the adjoining room of her young apprentice, the arrogant Valmont. While her relationship with the pair gets off to a rocky start, Eva grows to respect and even admire the eccentricities of Madame Zed, and Valmont discovers that he is drawn to Eva, not as a young woman but as inspiration.
Indeed, as the story progresses, the impact and mystique that perfume has played in our society continues to unfold. Madame Zed and Valmont move on and Eva later grasps an opportunity that will allow her to leave the Hotel and the life of a maid. Grace, while searching for clues to Eva’s life, stumbles across an abandoned perfumer’s shop which takes her to the Guerlain boutique on Champs-Elysees to seek clarification of what she has found. Adept both in moving the plot forward and in immersing the reader in the art and artistry found in the essence of fashion and couture, author Tessaro teaches without lecture, shares without hyperbole, and leaves the reader with an appreciation both authentic and vital.
The layered way that Kathleen Tessaro reflects the process of distilling elements of Eva’s story to recreate sensorial memories which then end up impacting Grace is very compelling. Just as disparate elements, some of which, at face value, are off-putting, rare, or crude, when combined in the proper proportion and after painstaking refinement, will create a thing of beauty, so too does Ms. Tessaro’s story take heartbreak and uncertainly – along with friendship and love – to bring forth a novel that is rare and utterly captivating.