I always feel at a loss when it comes to reviewing books I actually like. It’s easier to explain why you dislike something than why you like it — or maybe it’s just easier to milk your anger than your praise for 5-800 words.
The fact is that Perfume was just a beautiful, nasty little grown-up fairytale and I loved it. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the first time in a long time that I plowed through a book in a feverish “can’t-put-it-down” way. I’m pretty sure I haven’t felt that since I first read Harry Potter when I was 12, which is more than a little sad.
But on to the book itself. It was originally written by Patrick Suskind in his native German and my edition was translated into English by John E. Woods. The translation flows nicely enough that while you stumble over the occasional awkward phrase or strange wording, it doesn’t disturb the overall experience.
The story is as follows: Grenouille (the lead) is born to an indifferent 18th century French fishwife who gives birth in the middle of her workday and hopes to hide the baby below a table until it starves to death. Unfortunately for her, the baby starts to cry, is rescued and given to a wet nurse. Grenouille’s mother is executed. The wet nurse, however, gives Grenouille up as well when she realizes both that he has no smell (something she find sinister, if not downright evil) and that he has a ravenous appetite that keeps her from being able to nurse any other children. This begins a trend wherein Grenouille is continually abandoned and traded, which each former master coming to a nasty end. Eventually, however, Grenouille realizes that although he has no personal smell, he has possibly the best nose for scent in the world. Naturally, this makes him the perfect apprentice for the perfume trade — a trade that, the book informs us, is rather essential in a time before modern hygiene.
What’s great about the narrative is that it always zigs when you think it’s going to zag. I won’t elaborate, since that gives away a lot of the fun, but what I mean is that the book takes you along what seems to be a predictable path and then just abandons it without looking back.
I still haven’t seen the movie (though I might, because Ben Whishaw and Alan Rickman are both great), but I did spend a lot of this book wondering how they managed to adapt it. I have to think that they made the last portion a lot longer and built up the tension of the final murder and kept the setting a little more consolidated. Otherwise, you’d just have a mostly silent film about a guy going from town to town peeping at attractive redheads and cold-pressing flower petals.
In any event, I’ll leave most of the book unexplained and un-critiqued because it is a fun read and likely best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible.
Sorry again for the lack of snark and hilarious quotes, but I do hope you got a good recommendation out of this review. And if you’ve already read it (or seen the movie), let me know what you thought below.