Moving is one of those magical experiences that eats up time like a black hole gobbling everything. Absolutely everything. Consequently, this post is a long time coming. At least, it’s longer than anticipated. I actually finished this book about two weeks ago and meant to yell from the rooftops, but the rooftops had to wait.
Many boxes and too many car rides and a few irritated cardboard box cuts later, I’m back on the roof.
Kathleen Tessaro’s The Perfume Collector is a beautifully crafted story about Grace Munroe, a young upper class Englishwoman who finds herself the recipient of an unexpected inheritance, and Eva D’Orsey, the mysterious Frenchwoman who has named Grace her sole beneficiary. Grace journeys to Paris, in disbelief at the news that a woman she does not know has left her a sizable fortune. Unwilling to blindly, mindlessly accept the money and leave, Grace seeks out anyone who might have known Eva. In a derelict perfume shop, she meets a woman, seemingly the only person left who knew Eva, and learns through three perfumes the story of a remarkable individual.
The Perfume Collector is an enchanting story containing all the crucial elements of a genuinely entertaining read: mystery, romance, glamour, tragedy. Although its reveals are perhaps not so surprising and its ending thoroughly predictable, the story itself remains compelling and marvelous because its real beauty lies in the details of the protagonists’ lives and in the development of their characters. The prose is elegant, visual and visceral, embodying the use of perfume as a narrative lens.
I loved this book for so many reasons. Of course, the writing itself. I absolutely will not slog through a blandly written story; I’ve gotten very picky. I loved the scents and visions Tessaro evoked with her narrative style. The protagonists were also marvelous. Eva is a brilliant individual whose intelligence, grit, and cleverness help her transcend the socially-constructed class and gender barriers placed around her. Grace is also intelligent; she is determined, stubborn, and inquisitive. Over the course of the story, she gains confidence, reclaims her intelligence, and discovers the thrill of autonomy. Both women transcend the societal assumptions and restrictions to live life on their own terms. The stories themes of self-actualization are uplifting and joyful, even as they underscore the not-so-joyful circumstances that must often be overcome in the process.
And yes, it’s nice to have a story where women can be fully human without it having to be a big deal (as though women being human first and female second were some sort of revelation rather than an actual, since-the-dawn-of-humanity fact) or a statement on the author’s cleverness/timeliness/genius/worthiness.
Ultimately, The Perfume Collector is a beautiful story told in vivid, gorgeous language. It is a tale of transcending challenges, reminding the reader to strive for the positive rather than wallowing in the negative.