Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

When I was small, my grandmother had a collection of tiny, decorative perfume bottles on her dresser that fascinated me. The scents inside them weren't necessarily to my taste, but the exotic looking bottles with their fancy stoppers and their gold leafing appealed to my usually hidden girly side. They seemed so grown up, the very definition of a lady and I loved to touch them, hold them, and imagine stories about them. On a seemingly unrelated note, when I was pregnant, my sense of smell was heightened beyond all belief. I could open the refrigerator and know which of its contents were going off in the next day or two. I could smell and identify the faintest hints of things underneath showier scents. This was a blessing and a curse both. Combine my memories of these two sensory experiences, the touch of the perfume bottles and the heightened smell of intricate odors, and it comes as no surprise that I was attracted to Kathleen Tessaro's latest novel, The Perfume Collector.

Two intricately interwoven tales, the novel is the story, set in the 1950s, of Grace Monroe, a bright woman who is struggling with who she is, who she wants to be, and the uncomfortable persona of socialite wife her husband expects her to be to help him advance his career and, at the same time, it is also the story of Eva d'Orsey, a young French girl starting with her job as a chambermaid at a chic, glamourous, and discreet hotel for the daring and dallying jet set in New York City in 1927 and ranging through the rest of her fascinating and unusual life. When Grace is facing a crisis point in her marriage, having uncovered evidence of her husband's infidelity, she receives a commmunication from a lawyer's office in Paris, informing her that Eva d'Orsey has passed away and that she, Grace, is the sole beneficiary. Taking the opportunity to escape London, Grace heads to France, certain that there has been a mistake; after all, she has no idea who Eva d'Orsey is. Assured that she is indeed Eva's heir, she is unwilling to accept such a generous bequest from a perfect stranger and so she enlists the French lawyer, Edouard Tissot, to help her uncover who Eva was and how she was connected to Grace. As she and Edouard start to discover the smallest pieces of information about the late Mlle. d'Orsey, the plot shifts to Eva's tale and her trajectory from chambermaid to muse for one of the most sought after and talented perfumers of the time, Monsieur Valmont, a Jew.

Tessaro skillfully weaves the two stories together, moving from one to the other and back again, beautifully balancing Grace's personal unhappiness and her quest to understand what her inheritance means for her future with Eva's eventful story and the revelation of the connection between Grace and Eva. The immersion in the world of scents is fascinating and having Grace learn about this rarified profession allows the reader to learn about it as well without being overwhelmed by reams of authorial research. Both past time periods and the public restraints placed on women are artfully rendered and there is an air of elegance to the story as a whole. How Grace and Eva are connected is presented as a mystery but it's really only a mystery to Grace as the astute reader has no doubts about it right from the start of the novel but this predictability is only a small misstep in a sophisticated and over all enticing novel. A wonderful tale for historical fiction fans, this is also an appealing look at women, unusual certainly, but firmly of their times, the avenues open to them, and the ways in which they choose to order their lives, celebrate their own intelligence, and ultimately create themselves. It is one to savour slowly even as it becomes increasingly difficult to put down.

For more information about Kathleen Tessaro and the book check out her website or find her on Facebook. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. Years ago I visited a perfume factory in France and learned a bit about the people who design scents. It was fascinating! This book sounds like one I'd enjoy.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  2. That's such a sweet memory! This sounds like a good one.


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