The Perfume Collector
First Edition: May 14, 2013
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book in its entirety in a single day, but last week it happened with Kathleen Tessaro‘s marvelous new novel The Perfume Collector. It’s not that I was curled up in a chair, unaware of what was going on around me as I devoured chapter after chapter, fervently wondering what would happen on the turn of the next page. It’s that as I was reading it, the rest of the world faded away and I was captivated by the story that was unfolding before me. I could put it down and do what needed to be done, then return to it and slip immediately back into the lives that Ms. Tessaro had so gracefully drawn.
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. This is the woman of mystery. She who was the unassuming mistress to Jacques Hiver, owner of one of the largest and most glamorous cosmetic companies in France. We as readers get to 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 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, each with their own quirks and debaucheries – while quietly performing her duties discretely and without notice (yet while noticing much).
How the life of this guileless young hotel maid becomes entwined a generation later with a shy, sheltered British socialite is the framework on which The Perfume Collector is drawn, and it’s a strong, engaging story. 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 yet acknowledging the humanness of even the most glamorous or destitute of characters.
As the fate of the two women draws closer – the hotel maid and the young wife – we see them as separate people, one breathlessly and yet 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, especially in unconventional situations.
“Oh, I don’t know.” It wasn’t a subject she’d ever discussed with anyone before. “Well, for example, 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, it’s 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 any more.”
“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, 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 discovered wonderment is beautifully articulated in 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.
At first her natural scent seemed straightforward, simple; 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 effect, intensely arousing. It was the most compelling, deeply sensual thing Valmont had ever encountered.
Indeed, as the story progresses, as 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; and as 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, the impact and mystique that perfume has played in our society unfolds. 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 which feels authentic and vital. That the understanding of the perfumer’s art mirrors the poignant and very human drama accompanying it is a masterful stroke of storytelling.
“It’s one of my own,” he said proudly. “It’s taken me years to perfect it. 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.”
The layered way that Kathleen Tessaro reflects the process of distilling elements of Eva’s story to recreate sensory 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.
From all these elements, spanning one orphan girl who owns nothing yet possesses a self assuredness that raises her to amazing experiences, to a young woman who possesses a surety of status yet is bewildered by the expectations of her future, and bound together by artistry and the struggle to maintain one’s sense of self, comes this engaging story of sacrifice, determination, and discovery. In the end, we learn that the most precious gift one can give, to oneself or anyone else, is le droit de choisir – the right to choose. It is a story that may be read in one day, but the gift will linger much longer.