I understand why creating a perfumer protagonist is catnip for novelists. Perfume is glamorous, and the art of creating fragrance holds more mystery than, say, playing the cello. But so many novelists butcher perfumery. Often they portray noses as bloodhounds who can sniff a sprig of mint down the block, but they ignore the heart of creating a perfume — beautiful, effective composition.
In The Perfume Garden, Kate Lord Brown avoids this pitfall. Thank you, Brown, for not spending paragraphs having your perfumer heroine wax on about the smell of a carrot that was raised in a field fed by spring water run off through alfalfa fields where a gassy Doberman frolicked. On the other hand, there’s not much about perfume in The Perfume Garden at all. Although the heroine Emma Temple is supposed to be a world class perfumer, her interest in scent seems to stop at one character’s Acqua di Parma.
The Perfume Garden combines two stories, one set during the Spanish civil war and one in the early 2000s. Emma, our modern-day heroine, loses her perfumer mother and the father of her child at the same time. She moves to an abandoned house in Valencia that her mother bought. In renovating the house and meeting people in the neighborhood, she uncovers all sorts of family secrets — secrets told in the 1930s portion of the book.
The novel is loaded with lush language and drama. People get pregnant, lose limbs, fall in love, die in childbirth, pledge undying love, leave letters for survivors to find, discover hidden rooms and buried bones, and in one case converse with a ghost. It’s the sort of book that’s all emotion and sensual detail without a ton of wit. That’s okay, though — when you’re in the mood for melodrama backlit with dreamy description, this story will scratch that itch.
But if you’re looking for insight into the life of a perfumer or the creation of a fragrance, don’t bother. Although Brown inserts bits of perfume information — in one section, a character breaks into mini-monologue on harvesting orange blossom, for instance, and in another, one perfumer informs another perfumer that "like wine, some crops and some years are better than others" as if she doesn't know — for the most part the rare bits of perfume talk are mundane. We don’t see much about composition, other than a scene where Emma makes a fragrance inspired by her lover, and another nose, "the best in Spain," can’t figure out what that last ingredient is (spoiler alert: it’s ambergris, a material a perfumer would know like a cook knows salt).
But that’s about it. We learn nothing about the tiny tensions that make a scent gorgeous or about the modern perfume industry. At one point, Emma even explains that she doesn’t have enough room for enfleurage or distilling, as if a world renowned perfumer regularly gins up her own materials.
As for The Perfume Garden’s jacket copy proclaiming that the novel is a “…sensuously written story of lost love, family secrets, and the art of creating a perfect scent,” I’ll go with the “lost love” and “family secrets” part. For “the art of creating a perfect scent,” see Jean Claude Ellena’s Diary of a Nose.
The Perfume Garden is $24.99 in hardback or $11.99 in ebook by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martins. (By the way, make sure you don’t accidentally click “buy” for The Perfumed Garden, unless you’re looking for erotica.)