Perfume Collector (Tessaro)

The Perfume Collector
Kathleen Tessaro, 2013
464 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780062257833

An inheritance from a mysterious stranger . . . an abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank of Paris . . .  three exquisite perfumes that hold a memory . . . and a secret.

London, 1955: Grace Monroe is a fortunate young woman. Despite her sheltered upbringing in Oxford, her recent marriage has thrust her into the heart of London's most refined and ambitious social circles. However, playing the role of the sophisticated socialite her husband would like her to be doesn't come easily to her—and perhaps never will.

Then one evening a letter arrives from France that will change everything. Grace has received an inheritance. There's only one problem: she has never heard of her benefactor, the mysterious Eva d'Orsey.

So begins a journey that takes Grace to Paris in search of Eva. There, in a long-abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank, she discovers the seductive world of perfumers and their muses, and a surprising, complex love story. Told by invoking the three distinctive perfumes she inspired, Eva d'Orsey's story weaves through the decades, from 1920s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris, and London.

But these three perfumes hold secrets. And as Eva's past and Grace's future intersect, Grace realizes she must choose between the life she thinks she should live and the person she is truly meant to be.

Illuminating the lives and challenging times of two fascinating women, The Perfume Collector weaves a haunting, imaginative, and beautifully written tale filled with passion and possibility, heartbreak and hope. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Pitts burgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Education—attended University of Pittsburgh
   and Carnegie Mellon University
Currently—lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Kathleen attended the University of Pittsburgh before entering the drama program of Carnegie Mellon University. In the middle of her sophomore year, she went to study in London for three months and stayed for the next twenty-three years.

She began writing at the suggestion of a friend and was an early member of the Wimpole Street Writer’s Workshop. Her debut novel, Elegance (2003), became a bestseller. All of Kathleen's novels including Innocence (2005), The Flirt (2008), The Debutante (2011), and The Perfume Collector (2013) have been translated into many languages and sold all over the world. She returned to Pittsburgh in 2009, where she now lives with her husband and son. (From the author's website.)

Book Reviews
Tessaro dazzles the senses in this novel about a reluctant British socialite who receives a mysterious inheritance from an unknown Frenchwoman in 1950s Europe. Tessaro’s flashback-layered narrative concerns the mildly cliched Grace Munroe, a London housewife yearning for a sense of purpose, and Eva d’Orsey, an older Frenchwoman “living between memory and regret."... Predictably, Tessaro cycles between narratives....but [n]uanced observations soften the blow of the contrived banter [and] familiar form.
Publishers Weekly

A compelling plot in a truly magical Parisian setting, fascinating information about the way perfume is made, and great secondary characters make this a charming read. Tessaro does a marvelous job of conveying the atmosphere of a fairytale trip to 1950s Paris by a woman who finds herself, and romance, in the City of Light. Readers of the works of Emily Giffin and Laura Florand will enjoy. —Elizabeth Mellett, Brookline P.L., MA
Library Journal

A bewitching, compelling novel, full of dark desires, long-buried secrets, revisited memories, and new opportunities.

Grace Munroe, a young woman in London in 1955, receives a letter from Paris informing her that a woman she has never heard of has just died and left her an apartment and an investment portfolio.... The story then moves back in time and...from continent to continent and...reveals the sometimes-tragic, sometimes-exhilarating life journey of Eva D'Orsey.... Eva's story, told from her perspective, is interspersed with her story as told by Madame Zed to Grace Munroe, who has followed a clue to the old perfume shop. A colorful, stimulating journey through time.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The book is described as a secret history told in scent. The three perfumes Andre Valmont creates for Eva mark significant turning points in her life and changes in her identity. Do you have a secret history in perfume? What three perfumes best describe different turning points in your life? Discuss the significance that perfume plays in your own life to alter mood or trigger a memory.

2. Each of the main characters is not quite what they seem to be upon first meeting. How do they appear originally, and how do they change? What do you consider to be the significance of this in the story and how does it alter your opinion of them?

3. Should perfume always be pleasing?

4. Grace’s story is based on a real woman’s story. She was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family and only discovered she was actually the child of another man in adulthood, when he left his Paris apartment to her in his will. This woman was never able to reconcile her true history. In the novel, Grace’s discovery profoundly alters who she is and, more importantly, who she might become. Discuss how she’s affected, how it changes her view of herself and what possibilities are open to her now that weren’t before.

5. Do you think Eva a good mother? Point to examples as to why or why not.

6. In the novel, it’s not clear if Grace’s husband has been unfaithful or not. Why do you believe this is kept ambiguous?

7. Imagine you discovered that your parents were not biologically related to you. What part of your identity would change as a result? What personal backstory about who you are and who you ought to be would you feel free to let go of? Would it alter your values or place in the world? Or would it not make any difference to you?

8. Again and again, the phrase "le droit de choisir" or the right to choose is echoed through the book. It forms the principal legacy that Grace inherits. Why is choice so important to Eva d’Orsay? How does she pass on that legacy?
(Questions from author's website.)

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