Next up in our monthly installment of book recommendations from Camilla Morton's A Year in High Heels: The Girl's Guide to Everything from the A-List to Jane Austen is today's review of Patrick Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Coincidentally, I was last at Alice's Teacup, which she mentions below as a great location to discuss Perfume, for an event for Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict! Here's the reading group guide for Perfume.
If you missed last month's book pick from Camilla, check it out here.
Travel back to eighteenth- century Paris and follow a tale of scent and obsession, with sensual and sinister twists as one man pursues the perfect scent. If you have ever wanted to taste, smell, and travel through the streets of Paris’s past then Süskind’s spooky descriptions are for you. From the opening page the book is crammed full of adjectives to describe every sensory sensation as the gruesome story of Jean- Bapiste Grenouille unfolds.
Patrick Süskind was born on March 26, 1949, in Munich, Germany. He studied history at Munich University and spent a year in Aix- en- Provence, France, where he gathered the material that would inspire his bestselling novel. His first play, Double Bass, was published to great acclaim in 1980, but it was Perfume, translated into English in 1985 by John E. Wood, that really put him on the map. This fictional masterpiece has sold over a million copies worldwide. In 2006 it was turned into a film starring Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman, with Ben Whishaw as Grenouille. Süskind himself has retreated from public life and refuses to give interviews. But this doesn’t stop people reading and discussing his work. Kurt Cobain said it was his favorite novel, and wrote that "Scentless Apprentice," from Nirvana’s album In Utero, was inspired by it.
Grenouille is abandoned at birth, dumped among rotting fish guts, and is a strange, unearthly loner from the start. Though his circumstances are tragic, and beyond his control, Grenouille does little to endear himself to others. He is an unpopular orphan, but not through aggression or manner; what makes him an oddity is that he has no odor, and without it he is invisible to those around him. Despite this odd handicap, his own sense of smell is acute and he makes his nose his secret weapon and his hold over the world around him.
Orphan Grenouille is taken on as an apprentice to tanner Maître Grimal to learn a trade. When he delivers a goatskin to famed perfumer Baldini, he cajoles the gentleman into taking him on, sealing the deal when he blends a perfume that Baldini had been trying in vain to copy. He dangles the solution as bait: the recipe in exchange for an apprenticeship. For the first time Grenouille finds he has a skill and talent at which he excels and not only feels he can fit in but also feels empowered.
With this strange Grenouille as his hidden protégé, Baldini becomes the greatest perfumer in Paris. Business is booming and his patrons are hypnotized by his new blends. He is unstoppable, unbeatable, rich beyond his wildest dreams yet terrified by this creature who now controls his destiny. He needn’t have worried as despite his virtuoso talent, Grenouille doesn’t seek fame or fortune. Soon he has learned all he can and begins his quest in earnest for the ultimate scent. Grenouille leaves all the formulas with Baldini but no sooner has his protégé left than Baldini meets an unhappy end.
Grenouille is now free to wander the countryside searching for a way to blend ingredients to create his own scent. He is tormented and tortured as to how to get the perfect essence when he at last smells what he has spent his life searching for: the sweetest essence of all—that of a young virgin on the cusp of womanhood. He just needs to find a way to bottle it. Ruthlessly he gathers the ingredients he needs to make his scent, but will he succeed?
Perhaps it is not the cosiest of bedtime reads, but it’s certainly unforgettable and something sure to spark debate.
Ideally this book should be discussed in a dimly lit, red velvet bordello accompanied by perfumed teas, or you could combine the discussion with a wine-tasting session, allowing you to admire the merits of different bouquets, as well as nod to another great French passion. What essence of the book do you want to explore? Customized scents are all the rage; you could arrange for someone (with less deadly intent) to come and create a scent for the group. If the weather is playing fair you could meet in a scented garden, or perhaps this is the perfect excuse to try the newest pâtisserie, or visit Alice’s Teacup or Tea and Sympathy in New York City.
Alternative essences of Paris include:
A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Girl at the Lion d’Or by Sebastian Faulks
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland
Farewell, My Queen by Chantal Thomas
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo