Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

Posted August 5, 2013 by Heather in Book Reviews / 13 Comments

I received this book for free from the publisher / She Reads in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen TessaroThe Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro
Published by Harper on May 14, 2013
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 464
Source: the publisher / She Reads

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London, 1955. Grace Munroe is in a loveless marriage with a cheating husband. Having lived a rather sheltered childhood in Oxford, her marriage has also thrown her into the fashionable, upscale social circles in London, which she is not fond of. Social conventions be damned. Even though her tendency to be meek means she tends to do as her husband wishes, she isn’t happy with that arrangement. Of course, finding out that her husband is cheating on her doesn’t make any of it any easier.

Then one day Grace receives a letter from France, informing her that she is the sole recipient of a large inheritance left to her by a woman named Eva d’Orsey. The problem? Grace has never even heard of Eva and has no idea who this woman is.

So Grace goes to Paris to meet with Eva’s lawyers and to see if she can learn something about her benefactress. The story then moves back and forth between the present (1955) and Eva’s past (the 1920s and ’30s). Grace discovers the world of perfumers and is told Eva’s story through the three unique perfumes Eva inspired during her lifetime.

Okay. I’m going to start off with the part of the book I wasn’t fond of and just get it out of the way. Grace’s part of the story was disappointing. It was predictable, flat, and pretty boring. Sucky marriage, blah, cheating husband, blah, blah, handsome lawyer, blah blah blah, finds herself and wins the day. Whatever. The tiny bit of romance in Grace’s story was pretty bad, too. It didn’t feel the least bit believable. Everything about Grace’s part of the story just felt rushed and shallow.

Now, Eva’s story? Très bien! Eva’s part of the story kept me reading. Eva’s past was interesting and complicated and heartbreaking. Eva was by far my favorite character in the book (and I think she’s supposed to be–she’s really the only character who Tessaro spends a lot of time on development-wise, in my opinion).

I also loved the parts about perfume and professional perfumers. I’m not a fan of perfume for a few reasons, but the main reason is that I can never find anything that I truly love the smell of. Everything on the market these days is either too strong, or too flowery, or too something. Also? Everyone smells the same. When people buy popular perfumes, it stands to reason that there are going to be tons of people who all smell the same. How boring.

Perfume should tell a story–the story of who you are, who you might be, perhaps even of who you fear becoming…all of these things are possible. It’s a very intimate element of a woman, just like her signature or the sound of her voice. And it conveys feelings and states of being that have no name, no language. Its very ambiguity makes it truer than words because, unlike words, it can’t be manipulated or misunderstood.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to commission a perfumer to design a perfume specifically to one’s tastes? A perfume that compliments one’s own natural body scent and personality? Or a perfume that reminds one of another time and place, that brings back good memories? If I could do that, I would have two or three different perfumes that I would wear, depending on my mood. I think that would be awesome.

The bottom line is this: there were a couple of things that disappointed me about The Perfume Collector, but the things that kept me reading made up for that. Tessaro’s writing is smooth and easy to read–I could have easily read this book in just a couple of days. I loved that the book highlighted women who defied social convention and made their own decisions. I’m glad that I learned so much about the art of designing perfumes–that was very interesting to me. Overall, I’m glad I read The Perfume Collector and I’d recommend it to those who enjoy reading historical fiction and/or to those who are interested in reading about the art of perfume-making.

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  • I would love my own signature perfume. My favorite one is Addict by Christian Dior, which is about $100/bottle – so I don’t have it and I don’t wear it. If anyone ever decides to buy it for me, then I’ll totally become a perfume wearer!

  • I have this on my TBR and I’m really looking forward to reading this one! I am a lover of perfume, but at the same time I get what you’re saying about not wanting to smell like everyone else does. Boring. That’s why I choose them well. I love your idea of getting someone to design a perfume especially for your body chemistry. If only! 🙂

  • I agree with you completely about the quality of the writing and also loved the idea of having a custom perfume to match your own natural scent 🙂 Given that you were interested in that part of the story, you might want to check out The Perfect Scent which is the story of how two perfumes were made. I thought it was a great read to pair with The Perfume Collector and it was an interesting story all on it’s own.

    Strangely, although we liked many of the same things about the book, I actually liked Grace’s story best. I really liked the way she grew into a more independent character, while I found Eva to be an unrelatable and cold character once she grew up.

    • I *do* like that Grace became a more independent person. I like that very much. I just don’t necessarily like how the story got her there. I feel like the lawyer falling all over her wasn’t necessary for her to become her own person. I guess I’m having a hard time explaining it.

      I will definitely check out The Perfect Scent. Thank you for the recommendation!

  • Cool concept. I know what you mean about reading a book for just one character – we have to see them through even though other characters annoy us or bore us.

    Oh and I totally agree about perfumes…I’m always look for one and can never find “the perfect one”… Great post!

  • Good review! While I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, the idea of perfume creation as an art is fascinating. I was disappointed when Grace had to leave the perfume shop so early when she first discovered it. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a scent that really screams your name? I agree, Grace was a pretty one dimensional character. I wasn’t all that fond of Eva, but she was definitely interesting.

  • I really liked this book, but yeah, Grace’s side was a little less exciting. But Eva’s story was awesome. And I am totally rethinking all of my perfumes. . . like why SHOULD I wear the same one that thousands if not millions of women are wearing????

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  • I like perfume but don’t wear it often. I really like having the lotions that match a scent but I tend to use those more quickly and then I can’t find more. bummer. This book sort of intrigues me because I do think the perfume aspects would be very interesting but I think I understand your issue with Grace. But must know why Eva left her the money!

  • I love your review; I never loved a review in ages.
    About not being a fan of perfumes; you must overcome it because those makes the life smells magical. You can try pure smells of Musk or Vanilla (those mixed with the essence of your smell shall give you a signature which shall be defining yourself and tells your own story)…

  • I wonder if she did that deliberately with the characters to show contrast between them. It does sound like an interesting book. I too am interested in the perfume aspect. The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J. Rose was also a good one about perfume. I love perfume, but I do have only a couple of scents that I really like. Actually, my go to scent is Haiku made by AVON. It’s wonderful. I always get compliments when I wear it.

    Anyway, excellent review!

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  • I thought this book was charming and especially loved Madame Zed. She had some great lines!

    The thought of a personal perfume is enticing but can you say how you’d like yours to smell? I’m not sure I could describe myself in that way but to own a unique perfume would be like owning vintage Chanel. Adding it to my bucket list.