Grace Munroe is trapped in a loveless marriage, unable to have children and convinced her husband is having an affair. Out of the blue, a letter arrives from a French lawyer, asking Grace to travel to Paris as she has been named as the sole benefactor in the will of the recently deceased Eva d’Orsey. Grace makes the trip alone. So begins a journey of discovery into her past, as Grace traces Eva’s story and unravels the mystery of why she has been entrusted with Eva’s estate. Alternating between the late 1920’s/early 30’s and the mid-1950’s, Eva’s life and death begin to converge with Grace’s birth, and future.
The role of scent is fascinating within the book – the creation of perfume, the pursuit of the perfect accord, and the processes of the perfumer. Whilst there are visual and emotional descriptions within the text, the author’s talent for describing the smell of a scene adds a new dimension to appreciating its setting. She references famous French perfumes such as Guerlain’s ‘Mitsouko’ and explores the importance of aroma in recollections, sexual attraction and perception.
‘The Perfume Collector’ is like a perfume itself. There are the top notes – the light humour and teasing of the lawyer Edouard Tissot, Mallory’s exuberance, Paris fashion. Then the base notes which emerge after a while – power, debt, abandonment, betrayal and secrets. Throughout the narrative the author lays down clues which tug at your memory, wafts of something which has passed before but which you can’t quite capture. Then once you have finished the book, a trace of it lingers. The slight whiff of a scene from the novel transports you back to its pages, in the same way as scent connects us to our memories.
As a lifelong lover of perfume, (I am always surreptitiously sniffing passers-by and openly ask friends what they are ‘wearing’), I was transported by this book. It’s one which I will readily recommend. Like my favoured ‘Aromatics’, it is both evocative and memorable.