The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro was the November pick for my Book Club, a relatively good decision that all members, regardless of age, gender, or background, found at least somewhat enjoyable. It was a good middle-ground mix of substantive and entertaining, especially since we all found The Beekeeper’s Ball too fluffy and All Our Names and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena too heavy.
The book opens with a dying Eva d’Orsey in 1955, going through the motions of life while knowingly approaching death from alcoholism. Meanwhile, in London, socialite and trophy wife Grace Monroe is discontented about her life. She hates playing the role her ambitious husband wants her to play, but she also can’t find any independent outlet to express herself. This changes with a letter from Paris, stating that she is the sole heir of the newly deceased Eva d’Orsey and must come to France to receive her inheritance. Shocked by her mysterious benefactor’s generosity, Grace travels to Paris to uncover who Eva is and why Eva would leave Grace her money.
Tessaro alternates chapters from Grace’s perspective as she revels in her newfound freedom and investigates with chapters from Eva’s perspective, beginning in 1920s New York where she works at a hotel up to her eventual fate in Paris. As Grace grows into her own, so to is Eva developing and discovering who she is. This technique is deftly done as it helps the reader unravel the truth ahead of Grace, but with enough mystery to keep both storylines intriguing even if the ending is guessable early on.
Unlike most of my fellow book club members, I strongly preferred Grace’s journey to Eva’s. Granted Eva was quite young (14) when the story begins, but she was incredibly naive and kept being so despite the horrible things that happened to her. I desperately wanted to shake some sense into her with every poor decision she made. Grace, meanwhile, was sheltered and innocent, yet I admired her determination in the face of societal expectation and her doggedness to discover the truth instead of just taking the money and running.
The eccentric supporting cast was hit or miss for me. Grace’s best friend Mallory and lawyer Thissot were delightfully supportive, especially at a time where women’s lib wasn’t really a thing yet. But part of the reason I disliked Eva’s narrative was the despicable cast peppering it, from the prostitute Kat Waverly to the crazy Madame Zed to the gambler Lord Lambert. I empathized more with renowned perfumer Valmont, but he was oddly awkward and a little creepy, not because of his sexual tendencies but because of his obsession with bodily odor.
The title is a bit of a stretch, because I didn’t think that perfume collecting played as big of a role in the narrative as it could’ve. It’s mostly just a vehicle for Grace to uncover the past with its usage being far-fetched in certain plot-pivotal instances. However, learning about the intricacies of perfume development and the discussions of smell memory was interesting. It recalled a fascinating piece I saw, possibly on the Travel Channel, about the development of “the nose” amongst expert perfumers so that they can distinguish individual scents from a cacophony of smells.
In the end, this was a fine, mildly engaging read. It was fairly light and easy, with enough suspense to keep me invested. If you enjoy historical fiction, particularly mid-1900s New York or Europe, this would be a good choice.