Perfume Collector (Review)


The Perfume Collector
Kathleen Tessaro, 2013
464 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
June, 2013

Reading this lovely novel, it's hard not to think of The Language of Flowers. The similarities are thematic: both are coming-of-age stories—and where one uses flowers, the other uses perfume as a gateway to self-knowledge.

In 1955, Londoner Grace Munroe learns she has inherited a sizable estate from Eva D'Orsey, a Frenchwoman. Yet Grace has no idea who Eva is, let alone why she left Grace her money.

Even more disconcerting is Eva's stated purpose in passing her estate on to Grace: Eva wanted to ensure Grace would always have "le droit de choisir"—the right to choose. But this is a problem for Grace:

No one had ever advocated her independence before. The entire success of her...whole career as a woman depended on her cheerful, uncomplicated dependence, first on her family and then on her husband.

Grace comes tightly wrapped, shying away from food that tastes too much or scents that smell "too loud." For Grace, life is a matter of coming to your senses. Yet her charming French lawyer suggests that "coming to your senses" might refer not to rationality, as the staid English would have it, but to our physical senses:

Maybe we need to literally...return to our [five senses] and find sustenance in them, inspiration. Life is, after all, a sensual experience. Our senses have the power to truly transport us but also to ground us. Make us human.

This, of course, is one of the lessons Grace must learn. And when she discovers an exotic but abandoned perfumery in Paris, she sets off on her course of study.

Alternating with Grace's journey is that of Eva D'Orsey's. Eva's story begins in 1927 at the age of 14. It is Eva's story, more so than Grace's, that captures our attention. Given the strength of her personality, her cleverness and drive, Eva is the more compelling character. We follow her story with relish—and, of course, that story involves perfume.

The Perfume Collector contains delectable descriptions of perfumes, their effect on the senses, and their ability to inspire the imagination. Perfume, one character says, is aspiration. Book clubs should love this book and find lots to discuss.

See our Reading Guide for The Perfume Collector.

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