Kathleen Tessaro has written an indulgent piece of historical fiction. Although The Perfume Collector has a couple of misplaced “a’s” and “the’s” in the text, the disappointment brought on by that fades quickly with the passing of the story.
The story begins with Eva d’Orsey sitting at her kitchen table in Paris during the winter of 1954. She was ignoring her doctor’s orders for lessening the effects of cirrhosis, thinking “there was something naive, sweetly arrogant about the doctor’s assumption that everyone wanted to live forever.” Smoking and drinking, she thinks about some arrangements she has made and about going to church. And then, we are taken to London in springtime, one year later.
Grace Munroe leads us through the novel. She’s an upper-middle class wife who, at a party, finds out her husband has rendezvoused with the hostess on his business trips. Already needing more from her life – what she considers a failure through the eyes of her expectant 1950s husband – a letter from the estate of Eva d’Orsey arrives in the mail; Grace is the sole beneficiary named in Eva’s will. Not having any idea who Eva is, Grace flies to Paris in search of answers and an escape. While the character setup fell a little flat in the first couple of chapters, each main character ballooned to a level of intrigue and excitement throughout the novel.
Author Kathleen Tessaro knew the best moments for flashbacks. The first is to Eva at fourteen, whose uncle brings her to work at the hotel where he is employed. Through various meetings with a few guests, Eva, now a maid, also becomes a plaything, a companion, a muse, and ultimately a partner [in crime]. I do find her story line much more fun to read than Grace’s, who is already shaped into the person she is by the time we meet her. To be frank, I find this/her to be dull. But, she did take on this adventure so I admire her for that.
After a surprise finding, alongside the lawyer who is overseeing the legal matter of Grace’s inheritance of Eva’s apartment and stocks, we [eventually] learn the connection between the two women. I had my suspicions, but my interest in Eva’s backstory distracted me from formulating too many thoughts about their connection that might ruin the surprise; this will be the case for any deep romanticizer such as myself. It all ties together quite nicely, especially for a story with so many parts and characters.
The novel ends with Eva’s visit to the lawyer at the end of her life. After the past has been dug up, spewed out, and caused its pain, Eva accepts the conclusion of her story and looks happily at the possibilities waiting for Grace in hers. It was at this moment when I felt the weight of everything Eva had experienced, and the bright future ahead of Grace, all at the same time. It all manifested in the last two chapters, but instead of a mess, we are left with a clean slate.
And when she spoke, he caught the warmth of something confident and sure, like pride, in her voice.
‘The past is over,’ she decided.
Her shoulders fell, as if a great weight had dissolved.
‘What matters now, all that matters now, is what Grace Munroe chooses to do next.’