Book No 20 (2014) : The Perfume Collector

perfume collector I loved this book.

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.

perfumesThe 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.

aromatics

Film No 24 (2014) : Taken

takenI struggled to see this film as entertainment. As I am a parent, it hit where it hurts most – the fear of something happening to my children. In particular, my teenage daughter being abducted and sold into sex slavery. It was almost unbearable to watch.

Maybe I am a little too old for heartthrobs but I have a soft spot for Liam Neeson. In ‘Taken’, he plays Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent living in California. His daughter, Kim, travels to Paris with a friend. The girls are kidnapped by an Albanian gang. Using all his detective skills, Mills sets out to find them. It’s a film: you can probably guess the ending.

The film is gritty (not a word I use often) and violent. The scenes with drugged-up young girls trapped behind dingy curtains is frightening, especially as I imagine there must be more than a grain of truth in these portrayals. Shooting, fights and torture also feature prominently, together with some impressive car chases. I have to be honest; I spent a fair amount of the film peeping through my fingers.

Despite the uneasiness it caused, this is a ‘must-see’ film. A stark reminder of the dangers of society – and why you should always tell your parents the truth about where you are going.

Book No 16 (2014) : Thérèse Raquin

raquinI must have read hundreds of books in my lifetime (maybe more? I feel a bit of maths coming on!) but for some reason, scenes from ‘Thérèse Raquin’ come back to me quite regularly. I have no idea why, other than perhaps it’s because I studied the original in French and scrutinised the text in great detail. I also seem to recall there was a TV adaptation in the 1980’s?

In the rooms above a haberdashery in a dank back-street of Paris, a pair of lovers, Thérèse and Laurent, embarks upon a clandestine affair. Thérèse’s calm, almost static exterior belies her inner life as a passionate woman. Having spent her life with the pallid, sickly cousin to whom she is later married, Laurent brings about her sexual awakening. Desire drives away all reason and the pair plot to kill Thérèse’s husband, Camille, so that they can be together. On a day out at the river, Laurent drowns Camille. After a respectable period of mourning, Thérèse and Laurent are married, but their union is blighted by the ghost of Thérèse’s husband.

This is a dark, dark book. Published in 1867, it was criticised for being pornographic. Interestingly, the ensuing debate allowed Zola to answer his critics by means of a preface to the second edition of the book – which was great for sales! The setting is dark and the emotions are base. Despite being over 150 years old, this novel is a fascinating examination of the essence of humanity. It is worth knowing that Zola used the text to examine theories about Naturalism, the ideas that people are essentially ‘human beasts’, driven by the same instincts as animals. He wanted to study temperament, not character. Don’t let the notion of theories put you off – the book really has stood the test of time.

Whilst writing this review, I discovered that a new film adaptation of the novel was released in February 2014 as ‘In Secret’, an American production starring Elizabeth Olsen as Thérèse and Jessica Lange as Madame Raquin, Camille’s mother. I’ll look out for a copy.

By the way, you will be relieved to know that I am certain that the reason the book is so vivid is not that I am involved in an adulterous relationship with a man from the Railway Board, nor am I planning to dunk my husband in the Cherwell so that I can take off with my paramour. It’s just a gripping read. Honestly!

zola quote

Film No 9 (2014) : La Vie en Rose

La Vie en RoseA stunning biopic of the life of Edith Piaf, powerful French chanteuse who was at the height of her fame in the 1960s. Marion Cotillard won no less than seven ‘Best Actress’ awards (including an Oscar) for this performance and it’s easy to see why. The film is full of power and pathos, Cotillard’s portrayal of the troubled and mercurial Piaf is utterly mesmerising. The film is in French with sub-titles but, for me, the performance in Piaf’s native tongue added to the drama of the movie.

The film traces Piaf’s life from her early days as a the young Edith Gassion in Paris. When Edith is abandoned by her mother, she is taken in by her paternal grandmother who earns her living as the Madame of a brothel. The young Edith is cared for by the prostitutes before being taken away by her father on his return from World War 1. Louis Gassion is a contortionist, but it is his daughter’s idiosyncratic and powerful singing voice which draws in the spectators. A chance meeting with nightclub owner Louis Leplée in 1935 sees Edith proverbially plucked from obscurity – her rise to fame had begun. It was Leplee who gave Edith the stage name La Môme Piaf (‘The Little Sparrow’), later to become simply Edith Piaf.

By all accounts, Piaf was not a conventionally beautiful woman, neither was she easy to work with. It was all about the voice; haunting, melancholic and edith piafpowerful. A combination of drug addiction, illness and personal tragedy took their toll on Edith. She died of liver cancer in France aged just 47.

 I don’t want to give away too much more of the singer’s life story here, as the film depicts it passionately. As to whether the film is accurate in terms of events, I have no idea. But I thoroughly enjoyed the movie – and Marion Cotillard is rather better at impersonating Edith Piaf than I seem to remember Esther Rantzen being!