In 1955, Grace Munroe receives a letter from France stating she has been left an inheritance by Eva d’Orsey, but she is confused because she has never heard of the woman. Putting her troubled marriage behind her, Grace decides to travel to Paris to find out more about her mysterious benefactor and unravels a family mystery that shakes her to the core.
In the 1920s, fourteen year-old Eva begins working at one of New York’s premiere hotels and meets a variety of eccentric guests who will change her life forever. Lambert, a notorious gambler and alcoholic, wants to use Eva’s natural ability for numbers for his own gain; Valmont, the young perfumer’s assistant, is so intrigued by Eva’s burgeoning sexuality he is inspired to create unique fragrances; and then there is Rita, the troubled escort who ultimately corrupts Eva’s innocence. Each of these characters contributes to Eva’s story in a startling, albeit often tragic way.
The Perfume Collector is the story of two very different women trying to find their place in the world and how their lives interlink with others who leave their mark. The story is told from the point of view of both women as the chapters alternate between the 1920s and the 1950s. Eva’s journey is far darker than Grace’s as she meets those compelling characters who help mould her into the woman she will eventually become and are responsible for her ultimate downfall. The connection between Eva and Grace is easy to work out so the mystery angle falls short but it doesn’t really spoil much as you still have to get from Point A to Point B. The problem with Eva’s timeline though is it jumps around a lot to different times and locations which makes it seem more disjointed. I guess it has been done in this way to broaden the mystery but when you’ve already worked it out, it’s just annoying.
The most fascinating of Eva’s relationship is with Valmont, the young perfumer, who likes to create bespoke perfumes for women. He is a tortured genius in his field who has trouble coming up with ideas until he is inspired in some way and Eva seems to be the key to his muse. As soon as Valmont meets Eva, he is inspired to make the first of his unique perfumes and I really wish their time together in Paris had been explored further. The descriptions of how perfumes are created was fascinating and I had no idea it was so complex, and it would’ve been interesting to have explored this further. I loved how the scents were used to trigger certain memories in people and how Valmont was able to capture this to create unique perfumes for his clients.
The same perfumes are used to trigger memories in Grace as she attempts to unravel the mystery of her connection to Eva and it is cleverly done, producing all sorts of twists and turns. However, Grace’s life in 1955 suffers in comparison as she has pretty much buried her true nature into the image of the perfect society wife and is rather dull as a result. When Grace learns of her inheritance, her marriage is under strain due to her inability to conceive a child and her husband’s infidelity. Grace is at a crossroads in her life when she arrives in Paris and as the city slowly begins to work its magic on her, Grace feels like she is being released from her shackles. Unfortunately, the author fails to really show exactly how Grace manages to do this and her evolving romantic relationship with her young lawyer, Tissot, is so low key it barely deserves the name.
There is a hint that Grace has strong sexual desires which she has learned to bury deeply but this comes as news to the reader since we are never allowed to witness this side of Grace. Maybe a romp between the sheets with the hot lawyer would’ve remedied this but they barely get to kiss, instead Grace has a makeover which reveals her true beauty but does nothing to reveal those desires.
This is the second Tessaro novel I’ve read which employs the double timeline method, but again, I can’t help wishing she had told this story with all the attention on Eva as there was a lot to explore.