Madame Zen a legendary and mysterious Russian perfumer who lived and worked in Paris, created Lanvin’s famous My Sin perfume, among others. Kathleen Tessaro’s character Madame Zed in her novel The Perfume Collector is, according to Tessaro, based on “a fistful of facts” surrounding the real perfumer. Thus, Madame Zed is both at the heart of and absent from The Perfume Collector.
In The Perfume Collector, Madame Zed launches at least one of the careers of Eva d’Orsay and also holds the secrets to Grace Munroe’s past. She is the both the top note and base note in the novel, to employ the perfume phrase.
Eva D’Orsay works in the Warwick Hotel in New York City in 1927. Grace Munroe is an unhappily married former debutante in England circa 1955. When Eva dies at the opening of the book, she leaves specific instructions to dispense a plane ticket to Grace for her travel to Paris to collect an inheritance that includes a luxurious apartment, stock portfolio and a box of cheap, glass tchotches. Grace has never met Eva, has no idea who she is or why Eva would leave her an inheritance with the bequest that Grace be able to “choose for herself.”
The setting in the Warwick Hotel certainly appealed to me, as it’s one of my favorite places in New York, both to stay and just to stop into the bar for a drink. I always expect to see Carey Grant right around the corner. Tessaro said in an interview with the Keep Calm and Read a book blog: “I researched and used the Warwick Hotel in New York City, which has the kind of glamorous history that embodied the extravagant, wildly optimistic spirit of the age. Built in 1925 by William Randolph Hearst, it catered to the needs of his Hollywood friends and especially his mistress, Ziegfeld Follies, and screen star Marion Davies, who had her own specially designed floor. It was always a show business hotel and so was from the outset, was accustomed to dealing with outrageous and larger than life characters. It was also the New York home of Carey Grant for twelve years.”
So between New York in the Roaring Twenties and Paris at the height of Dior’s New Look and post-war euphoria, the setting of The Perfume Collector are marvelous. And there’s a mystery at the heart of the book, that even once you have solved, keeps you turning the pages for a bit more information.
But to me, the most appealing element of the novel are the descriptions of the perfume creations:
My Sin, the label read, in gold lettering.
Very carefully she opened it, holding the gold stopper to her nose. Up wafted the intense floral top notes of narcissus and freesia, warming to a dark, almost animal muskiness. It was intoxicatingly beautiful and, at the same time, dangerous, with jarring hidden depths.
My Sin has been discontinued, alas. And from what I can find, the perfume named Aureole Noire by its creator Monsieur Valmont has never actually existed.
Bright, icy clear and yet tender at the same time — built on the original idea of contrasting states that had inspired him with rain. Top notes of velvety violet leaves, luxurious white flowers and light geranium, warmed to fiery depths, created from ambers resins, smoky wood and smoldering dry citrus leaves. Underlying does of ouhd and ambergris lent it a melting, shifting quality; metamorphosing from an apparition of pure light, to a burning dark core and back again. It was a scent that lacked coyness, made no concessions to charm. Like standing on the edge of a great and terrifying cliff, it was shocking, beautiful, sublime.
The novel is a swift, pleasant, escapist journey that transports the reader through exotic places and scents and times without requiring much effort from her.
While writing this post, I found a beautiful blog on perfumes with reviews, history, and even personalized recommendations. http://boisdejasmin.com. You might want to check that out.
Use Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa recipe. We had this at book club recently and it was the most popular dish ever served. Our hostess mounded the salmon and vegetables on a beautiful platter and made the dressing easily available for us to serve ourselves. Heaven! http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/roasted-salmon-nicoise-platter-recipe.html
Crusty French bread (buy it)
A French wine, perhaps a white Burgundy, Macon-Villages
For dessert, beautiful French chocolates
Josephine Baker is a must. Blue Skies, Bye Bye Blackbird
American in Paris, Leonard Bernstein
Soundtrack from Gigi
Madame Zed: Shirley MacLaine
Eva D’Orsay: Shailene Woodley
Grace Munroe: Natalie Portman
Andre Valmont: Chris Colfer
Roger Munroe: Benedict Cumberbatch
Monsieur Tissot: Jean DuJardin
*Vintage Lanvin ad, postcard of the Warwick Hotel