Kathleen Tessaro’s fifth novel is the story of two women: Eva d’Orsey and Grace Munroe.
Grace Munroe lives in Bloomsbury, London and is married to Roger. It is 1955 and what’s expected of her is to be a society wife:
It must be nice to have a job. A neatly arranged desk. A well-organised filing cabinet. And most of all, purpose.
Now that she was married, her days had a weary open endedness about them; she floated like a balloon from one social obligation to another.
Her husband wants her to make contacts with other society wives and her friend Mallory is always on hand to help with this.
However, two things are about to change Grace’s life. The first is a letter from Paris:
Dear Mrs Munroe.
Please accept our sincerest apologies for your recent loss. Our firm is handling the estate of the deceased Madame Eva d’Orsey, and it is our duty to inform you that you are named as the chief beneficiary in her will. We request your presence at our offices at your earliest convenience, so that we may go through the details of your inheritance.
Grace has never heard of Eva d’Orsey.
The second is at the party she and Mallory are attending that evening. Grace finds herself the centre of attention when some of the other guests discover she has a photographic memory and is, therefore, incredibly good at the game where you recall objects on a tray that you’ve had a minute’s exposure to. To fend off suggestions of cheating, the host asks for his wife’s handbag and Grace has 30 seconds to recall the contents. The final item is:
‘A mother-of-pearl and gold cigarette lighter,’ she repeated slowly, ‘with the words “Always and Evermore” engraved on the side.’
‘It’s amazing!’ Maxwell raved. ‘Absolutely incredible! How could you even see what was engraved on that lighter?’
The lighter belongs to Grace, it’s one of the few possessions she has of her late father’s. Also in the bag was a ticket stub for a cinema in Scotland and a matchbox from the hotel in which Grace’s husband is currently staying. The following morning, Grace leaves for Paris.
Eva d’Orsey’s story is one that begins in a hotel in New York in the 1920s. She’s a chambermaid in a hotel filled with the stars from the Follies. A hotel that provides whatever its guests need and this exposes Eva to the seedy underbelly of the theatrical world as well as rich clientele from around the world.
There are two main strengths to The Perfume Collector – Tessaro’s descriptions of the people, the places and the perfume that becomes central to the novel as it progresses and her exploration of women’s sexuality and society’s reaction to it. Commercial women’s fiction (if we have to label it) is often criticised – unfairly, I think – as being fluffy and flippant when it often considers hefty themes.
However, the novel also has two weaknesses. Firstly, its adherence to the conventions of the genre mean that the main plot twist and who will feature in the romantic tryst are obvious fairly early on. Secondly, Eva d’Orsey’s rise from chambermaid to society darling is perhaps a little too unbelievable.
Overall, The Perfume Collector is a well-written novel that explores the idea of a woman’s place through a story that could seem utterly fantastical if the darkness behind it wasn’t exposed. Enjoyable.
Thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy.