In my fifth novel, The Perfume Collector, a young woman in 1950s London inherits an apartment in Paris from a woman she’s never met. This event begins a transformative journey for her, which profoundly changes her perception of herself and her future.
In fact, this story is taken almost verbatim from an experience a friend of mine recounted to me. This accomplished woman, now in her fifties, was a well-known society hostess and member of the English aristocracy. The daughter of a famously beautiful debutante, she’d been raised into a world of class and privilege, defined by strict social rules and historical alliances. Then one day, when she was in her mid-twenties, she received a letter from a law firm in Paris, informing her that she was the soul beneficiary in the will of a man she’d never heard of. Part of her inheritance included a flat. What followed changed her life forever, and deeply challenged both her identity and sense of purpose in the world.
At the same time, I wanted to tell a story through perfume, focusing on its unique power to release hidden emotional memories. In the end, it turned out to be the perfect medium for capturing different time periods and gave the book a framework. It’s also the ideal conduit for half-remembered moments, lost loves and unresolvable regrets.
While writing, I was less concerned with the central “mystery” and more compelled by the impact and implications this had on the lives of my two main characters. When my friend confided in me, I was touched and intrigued by what she did with the information she discovered, and how she developed as a person as a result. It reminded me of the precariousness of human connection and of the unforeseeable conflicts and circumstances that shape all our lives.
* * *
London,1955: Grace Monroe is a very fortunate young woman. In spite of a sheltered upbringing in Oxford, her recent marriage has thrust her into the heart of London’s most refined and ambitious social circles, where alliances are formed and reputations made. However, playing the role of the sophisticated socialite her husband would like her to be doesn’t come naturally to her – and perhaps never will.
Then one evening, a letter arrives from a law firm in Paris. Grace has received an unanticipated inheritance. Only her benefactor, Frenchwoman Eva d’Orsey, is a complete stranger to her. Grace dismisses it as a mistake. However, when later that same night, she suddenly suspects her husband of infidelity, her world is thrown into chaos.
Fleeing London for Paris, Grace searching for information about the mysterious Eva d’Orsey. What she uncovers is the remarkable history of an unconventional woman who inspired one of Paris’s greatest perfumers. Only Eva’s past and Grace’s future intersect. And soon Grace must chose between the life she thinks she ought to live or becoming the person she truly is.
Told in three distinctive perfumes, the story weaves through the decades, from 1920’s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris and London; revealing the complex, obsessive love between muse and artist and the tremendous power of memory and scent.