The Perfume Collector, by Kathleen Tessaro
The beautifully written and compelling novel moves effortlessly between Paris in the spring of 1955, and New York City in 1927. Young, Oxford-reared socialite Grace is newly married yet 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 the estate, she travels from her home in London, purportedly to sign 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, she begins to uncover bits and pieces about the intriguing recluse who has named Grace her heir.
Eva d’Orsey – the unassuming mistress to Jacques Hiver, owner of one of the largest and most glamorous cosmetic companies in France. We meet Eva 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 that bustling 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 – while quietly performing her duties discretely and without notice – while noticing all.
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, but even more 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.
As the fate of the two women draws closer, we start to realize their commonalities. Both are smart, observant, and within the confines of their worlds, unafraid to voice their opinions, especially in unconventional situations.
“…I often wonder about the bombs in the war. Why does a bomb fall out of the sky and land right here, on this house, and on no other? My mother died during the Blitz, so I suppose I have a morbid curiosity. But you see, if you knew the weight and density of the bomb, how fast the plane was flying, its elevation, the direction and strength of the wind – it wouldn’t be a mystery; you could figure it out. Nothing would be random or accidental anymore.”
“And you don’t believe in chance, do you?” he reminded her.
“No, no I don’t.”
“But then tell me, where exactly does that leave God in your equation?”
“Where God has always been; somewhere between the weight of the bomb and the house.”
Both women also have an extraordinary way with numbers, and both are open to wonders that manifest through the senses. 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, even as Valmont discovers that he is drawn to Eva, not as a young woman but as inspiration.
Much later, 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, and Tessaro is able to give us a glimpse into the impact and mystique that perfume has played in our society. 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, this understanding of the perfumer’s art mirroring the poignant human drama accompanying it is a masterful stroke of storytelling.
“You see, nothing is more immediate, more complete than the sense of smell. In an instant, it has the power to transport you. Your olfactory sense connects not to the memory itself, but to the emotion you felt when the memory was made. To recreate a scent memory is one of the most challenging, eloquent pursuits possible. It’s poetry, in its most immediate form.”
From all these elements, spanning one orphan girl who owns nothing yet possesses a self assuredness that raises her to amazing heights, to a young woman who possesses a surety of status yet is bewildered by the expectations of her future, bound together by artistry and the struggle to maintain one’s sense of self, The Perfume Collector is an engaging story of sacrifice, determination, and discovery. Regardless of your own relationship with scents and sensibilities, it is an experience you will be sure to treasure.