…I easily imagine this perfume floating in the wake of a tall, slender brunette, whose moves are confident, who voice is accustomed to giving orders, and who fingers are slightly darkened by tobacco. She is one of those women who always wears a suit, even at midnight at the Savoy; one of those women captivating to watch at the casino in Monaco, who after having lost a sum of money, takes bills and a money order from a love letter hidden in her fine leather handbag, where they have taken on a pungent, slightly wild odor, and with great calm throws them on the green baize of the gaming table.
In her review of Chanel Cuir de Russie, Angela hoped the writer of this 1936 publicity text went on to a career as a novelist. In any case, author Kathleen Tessaro paints a worthy past for this Cuir-scented brunette with The Perfume Collector.
Grace Munroe is a 20-something newlywed, stifled by society life in 1950s London until a mysterious French woman leaves her a sizable fortune. Looking for answers, Grace travels to Paris and discovers the unlikely past of the woman behind a legendary perfume and the tragedy that unites them.
Tessaro deftly weaves between the rigid world of Mad Men and a Roaring Twenties that crosses Downton Abbey with The Great Gatsby. A light touch with the historical details keeps the book from becoming a hot mess of pop culture. That same light touch also works in spades for the perfume talk, which evolves slow and steady along each protagonist’s path.
While the plot is somewhat predictable and another round with a seasoned editor could have fixed some flaws, the strengths of The Perfume Collector more than make up for it. Every great perfume tells a story, and Tessaro does a fabulous job of setting one in print.
The Perfume Collector
By Kathleen Tessaro. 456 pp.
HarperCollins, 2013. $24.99.