Kathleen Tessaro's new novel The Perfume Collector is far from your typical mystery novel, it is as mysterious as stories get. There are no investigators bumbling around, no murdered corpses laying about, but nonetheless it held my attention every bit as those edge-of-your-seat thrillers.
When Grace Munroe receives a letter at her home in England in 1955 telling her of an inheritance in France, she is perplexed. She has never been to Paris, knows no one there. As she suffers marital issues and personal discord, however, she makes a decision to travel there by airplane and solve the riddle herself. She meets immediately with Edouard Tissot, the attractive, attentive French lawyer in charge of settling her benefactor's estate.
She refuses to acquiesce to the initial demands from the law firm to wrap up the business of her inheritance quickly, choosing instead to do some digging into the life of the person who left her such an unexpected legacy. Through flashbacks to 1920s New York City and Europe through the decades that follow, Tessaro recounts to readers the fascinating tale of Eva d'Orsey's life.
You know a book is an excellent read when you spend much of your time marking lines that grab you. I did this in the beginning, but about halfway in I didn't pause for such literary nonesense; at that point, I was devouring the book as fast as I could read to find out what happened and how it unfolded.
A couple of the lines from early on:
"There was something naive, sweetly arrogant about the doctor's assumption that everyone wanted to live forever."
"Grace didn't like to admit to sleeping during the day; it felt like the thin edge of the wedge."
The mystery in the book kept me reading, but there was so much more to enjoy and dissect. I found myself drawn to Tessaro's richly drawn characters, even as they made decisions I couldn't wholeheartedly agree with.
My college women's studies courses in feminism came rushing back as I contemplated the fine line between women's choice and men's force. Various types of feminism, for example, view prostitution differently. Some feminists view prostitution as a form of violence against women, while others view it as a woman's right to freely use her body how she chooses.
I struggled with similar feelings about some of both Grace Munroe and Eva d'Orsey's actions in the novel, and I think an examination of their characters through various lenses would yield interesting results. Are they strong, independent women, or a victims of circumstance? Whatever your final take on each of their characters, The Perfume Collector will force readers to think about the double-sided nature of humanity: both the good and the ugly.
Another fascinating aspect of the novel is the topic referenced in the title: the idea of scent and its multi-faceted layers of meaning. Knowing nothing about the making of perfume before reading this book, I found the passages detailing the pressing of flowers, wool, and even hair to distill their scent fascinating. Although this is not a novel explicitly about the history of perfume making, Tessaro nonetheless weaves a knowledge of perfuming into the pages of the book in a way that brings a richness and depth to the story.
Kathleen Tessaro is the author of four previous novels. Although American born, Tessaro spent more than two decades living in London, and her first-hand experience in Europe lends an authentic flavor to her writing set on the continent.
The Perfume Collector is the August selection of the SheReads Book Club. For more thoughts on this title, you can visit their August Book Club page and see what others had to say!