Author: Kathleen Tessaro
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
Pages: 464 (hardcover edition)
Published: April 2013
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
A remarkable novel about secrets, desire, memory, passion, and possibility.
Newlywed Grace Monroe doesn't fit anyone's expectations of a successful 1950s London socialite, least of all her own. When she receives an unexpected inheritance from a complete stranger, Madame Eva d'Orsey, Grace is drawn to uncover the identity of her mysterious benefactor.
Weaving through the decades, from 1920s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris, and London, the story Grace uncovers is that of an extraordinary woman who inspired one of Paris's greatest perfumers. Immortalized in three evocative perfumes, Eva d'Orsey's history will transform Grace's life forever, forcing her to choose between the woman she is expected to be and the person she really is.
The Perfume Collector explores the complex and obsessive love between muse and artist, and the tremendous power of memory and scent.
I've had my eye on The Perfume Collector since Danielle's awesome review in May of 2013. (That cover didn't hurt, though. It is memorable, and chic, and vaguely historical. Basically, it makes me want to read this book yesterday.) In a story somewhat akin to M.J. Rose's The Book of Lost Fragrances, Kathleen Tessaro ably transports her readers to a rich, detailed, and evocative plot, where themes of memory, loss, and independence are subtly woven into the narrative. Using the two lives of Grace Munroe in the 1950s and Eva d'Orsey in the 1920s, Tessaro weaves an immensely readable tale of secrets, skeletons in the closet, and she does so with remarkable success.
The narrative frame for the plot -- two women with similar lives and an unexpected connection, with one being in the "present" (aka the 1950s for The Perfume Collector), and one in the past - is a familiar one, done before by Susanna Kearsley, Kate Morton, and others. But Tessaro uses the idea smartly. The jumps between storylines are smooth in their alternations between Eva and Grace, and while the mystery is very obvious, the shifts keep the reveal from feeling too long in coming. The book is in no rush and moves at a steady, if slower pace, but it allows the reader to really get to know both of these complex women. It helps that both main characters are interesting people capable of carrying a plotline on their own, though Eva's story is perhaps the more engaging despite her more mercurial nature.
This is a book that made me want to travel -- both overseas to the places mentioned and back in time to the eras depicted. 1950's Paris has never seemed so full of both possibilities and problems. Tessaro's writing is evocative and that easily lends to creating an atmospheric feel for her story, be it whatever decade or whichever location. Paris, especially, comes alive when Eva, and later Grace, travel there. This is a book that feels very Parisian -- the debates on perfume, on clothing and fashion --all just seemed to me very authentically French. That place-as-character is always an added benefit to well-done historical fiction, and Tessaro has it in spades here with The Perfume Collector.
I loved nearly all of this, but the "big mystery".... isn't. The main complaint that can be leveled at this novel is that it falls prey to a few historical fiction tropes that keep it from perfection. The lack of mystery for the mystery element is the biggest one, but the rest of the plot is pretty easy to see early on into the book. It doesn't feel entirely predictable, just that The Perfume Collector is largely more concerned with the story of the characters' personal evolutions into various roles.
The Perfume Collector is a lovely, and atmospheric read. Eva and Grace's stories are woven together with skill and pathos, and reading Kathleen Tessaro's novel was an addictive pleasure. In many ways, this is a beautiful book, and I finished it very impressed by the author.