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"The Perfume Collector" by Kathleen Tessaro

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Grace Munroe, an attractive young London socialite, receives a letter one day in 1955 that not only changes her future but alters her past, as well. In The Perfume Collector we learn of these changes through separate narratives, one from the late 1920s and ‘30s, the other in Paris during the spring of 1955. The book contains the stories of several intelligent, resourceful women who get by on their wits, sometimes their charms, and some of whom are simply bullied into lives they cannot escape.

The two narrative strings proceed quite independently of each other, until Ms. Tessaro’s meaning and intent become clearer. And as they do, the pace and our interest pick up concomitantly. The drawing of these two streams into a cohesive whole constitutes a lovely performance, very skillfully managed by the author.

I found the characters somewhat less skillfully handled, however. The earlier story belongs to Eva, whose sudden transition from 14-year old ingenue to debauched vamp at 15 I found quite jarring. She wields her newfound sexual power and glamour like a seasoned veteran. Where did she learn it so quickly, unless it was under the tutelage of the high-priced prostitute, Miss Waverly? We never see allusions to such tutelage, but we apparently must assume it.

In Grace’s case, she has violent reactions to what she learns of her own past, and the reader has to interpolate emotions rather that read about them - why is she so vituperative, what exactly is she crying about, why did she faint? These flaws are far from fatal, and more sensitive readers may not find them flaws at all. For me, these flights had no foundation in her story or emotional makeup.

I usually enjoy and appreciate open, non-conclusive endings, which this book has, and the potential for Grace’s pleases and gratifies the reader. I did become stuck wondering about French property law, though, and how it will affect Grace and her soon-to-be-estranged(?) husband.  The Perfume Collector is a pleasurable read, nonetheless. The beautiful plotting and the wise, balanced conclusion carry the day.


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