Tag Archives: women’s lit

Book Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

perfume collectorThe Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro (Harper; 464 pages; $24.99).

It was with quite a bit of reluctance that I picked up The Perfume Collector.  I read the description and sighed deeply.  Yet another dual narrative?

If it had been closer to Halloween, I would have dressed up like the Statue of Liberty, torch and all, shouting my own version of the Emma Lazarus poem:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your dull dual narrators yearning to break free…”

I wanted something different.  I wanted to read a story in which the narrator was the setting of the story.  I wanted a coming-of-age tale in which the protagonist was unreliable.  I wanted suspense.  I wanted thrills and chills.  I wanted the first person plural.  I wanted flash fiction, meta fiction, flashback, flash forward.  Anything, anything other than a dual narrative.  It just seems as if we are inundated with those these days.

However, there was one aspect of The Perfume Collector that I found unable to resist: perfume.  Ever since I was quite young, I have collected perfume bottles and scents.  I will admit that it was the perfume aspect of the novel that persuaded me to read the book.   And when I did, the experience was so intoxicating and unforgettable.

An inheritance from a mysterious stranger . . .
An abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank of Paris . . .
And three exquisite perfumes that hold a memory . . . and a secret

London, 1955: Grace Monroe is a fortunate young woman. Despite her sheltered upbringing in Oxford, her recent marriage has thrust her into the heart of London’s most refined and ambitious social circles. However, playing the role of the sophisticated socialite her husband would like her to be doesn’t come easily to her—and perhaps never will.

Then one evening a letter arrives from France that will change everything. Grace has received an inheritance. There’s only one problem: she has never heard of her benefactor, the mysterious Eva d’Orsey.

So begins a journey that takes Grace to Paris in search of Eva. There, in a long-abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank, she discovers the seductive world of perfumers and their muses, and a surprising, complex love story. Told by invoking the three distinctive perfumes she inspired, Eva d’Orsey’s story weaves through the decades, from 1920s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris, and London.

But these three perfumes hold secrets. And as Eva’s past and Grace’s future intersect, Grace realizes she must choose between the life she thinks she should live and the person she is truly meant to be.

Illuminating the lives and challenging times of two fascinating women,The Perfume Collector weaves a haunting, imaginative, and beautifully written tale filled with passion and possibility, heartbreak and hope.

Tessaro, the author of Elegance, creates two strong yet very distinctive women who transported me to places I had never been, to an era in which I was not a part.    She has an innate ability to immerse her readers completely in the time period in which she writes. And aren’t those the best novels?

It wasn’t long before my heart skipped a beat and my senses heightened.  My whole body became alert.  Was the dual narrative what I needed?  Even when I had turned my back on this technique? 

I sped through the story, utterly riveted to Tessaro’s pages, heady with feeling, intoxicated by the author’s prose, setting, characterization, and plot.

The Perfume Collector restored my faith in the dual narrative, and I have the author to thank for that.  Kathleen-Tessaro-236x300

So I pose these questions to you:

Which technique and style do you prefer?

What do you think there is just too much of?

What would you like to see more of?

To read more reviews of this book, connect with other readers,  enter giveaways, and participate in discussion–visit She Reads.

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The Paradise Guest House by Ellen Sussman: Spotlight and Giveaway

The Paradise Guest House by Ellen Sussman (Ballantine Books; 272 pages; $15).

paradise guest house

From Ellen Sussman, the bestselling author of French Lessons, comes a riveting and poignant novel of one woman’s journey across the world in search of love, renewal, and a place to call home.

“And you?” the man asks.  “What takes you to Bali”

The plane breaks through the cloud and there it is–an island full of dense jungles, terraced rice paddies, and glorious beaches.  Jamie flinches as if someone’s laid a fist into her heart.

“Vacation?” her seatmate asks when she doesn’t answer.

“Yes,” she lies.  “Vacation.”

He’s already told her about his silent meditation retreat, how he can’t wait, how he needs to unwind, and she thinks: Start now.  She curses herself for talking to him in the first place.  It was the second scotch that loosened her tongue and made her break her rule: no chats on airplanes.  You can’t escape.

“All by yourself?” he asks.

Jamie turns toward him.  “There’s an event,” she says.  “I was invited to attend.”  She absentmindedly runs her finger against the long, thin scar at the side of her face and then buries her hand in her lap.

“A wedding?” he asks eagerly.  He’s already told her about his wonderful Australian fiancee who will meet him at the retreat in Ubud.

“No,” Jamie says.  Her mind’s a muddle of thoughts now.  There’s no reason to tell him anything.  And yet she’s been telling the world: I’m going back to Bali.

It starts as a trip to paradise.  Sent on assignment to Bali, Jamie, an American adventure guide, imagines spending weeks exploring the island’s lush jungles and pristine white sand beaches.  Yet three days after her arrival, she is caught in Bali’s infamous nightclub bombings, which irreparably change her life and leave her with many unanswered questions.

One year later, haunted by memories, Jamie returns to Bali seeking a sense of closure.  Most of all, she hopes to find Gabe, the man who saved her from the attacks.  She hasn’t been able to forget his kindness–or the spark between them as he helped her heal.  Checking into a cozy guest house for her stay, Jamie meets the gracious owner, who is coping with a painful past of his own, and a young boy who improbably becomes crucial to her search.  Jamie has never shied away from a challenge, but a second chance with Gabe presents her with the biggest dilemma of all: whether she’s ready to open her heart.

Ellen Sussman

Ellen Sussman

Ellen Sussman is the author of three national bestselling novels: The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons and On a Night Like This.  All three books have been translated into many languages and French Lessons has been optioned by Unique Features to be made into a movie. Ellen is also theeditor of two critically acclaimed anthologies, Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia Of Sex and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave. She was named a San Francisco Library Laureate in 2004 and in 2009. Ellen has been awarded fellowships from The Sewanee Writers Conference, The Napoule Art Foundation, Brush Creek, Ledig House, Ucross, Ragdale Foundation, Writers at Work, Wesleyan Writers Conference and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has taught at Pepperdine, UCLA and Rutgers University. Ellen now teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes out of her home. She has two daughters and lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Ellen was born in Trenton, NJ and has lived in Boston, Philly, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Paris and Northern California. She has worked lots of jobs including tennis instructor, restaurant manager, and college teacher but through all the transmutations of her life she has been writing, since the age of six, stubbornly, persistently, with great cockiness and wild insecurity, through praise and piles of rejection letters. She has given up her writing career many times, but only for a day or two, and her family has now learned to ignore her new career choices. She is a writer, an almost daily writer, a writer who actually loves to write.

Jamie is one of the most courageous and inspiring characters who I have ever come across.  Setting may drive Sussman’s deeply affecting story, but Jamie is an unforgettable narrator.  In the midst of reading The Paradise Guest House, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Such a horrific act reminded me of the Bali nightclub bombings.  Although Sussman’s tale is fictional, the novel shows us that, even in the midst of tragedy and heartache, there is still life to live and love to share.  This lush, atmospheric novel is perfect for fans of Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love.

I am offering a very special giveaway: a brand new, signed copy of The Paradise Guest House.  Giveaway ends Friday, April 19, at 5 pm ET.  Open to US residents only.  Please fill out the brief form below.

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Good Girls and Bad Choices

I Couldn’t Love You More by Jillian Medoff (5 Spot; 432 pages; $13.99).

 

            Cinderella had a stepmother, so did Snow White.  Fairy tales, movies, and books often portray stepmothers as cruel, evil, ugly, and jealous women.  In I Couldn’t Love You More, Jillian Medoff dispels stereotypes and simultaneously dazzles us through her protagonist, Eliot Gordon.

 

Eliot is a thirty-eight-year-old daughter, sister, mother, stepmother, and wife.  But she is not married to Grant.  Confused? So was I in the beginning, but it’s only semantics.  Eliot refers to Grant as her “husband,” although they are not married.  They have been together five years and raise three girls: Hailey, their four-year-old daughter, and Charlotte and Gail, fourteen and seven respectfully, Grant’s daughters.  Grant has never asked Eliot to marry him, but they live like husband and wife.  Eliot treats Charlotte and Gail as if they are her own children, especially since Beth, their mother, is flaky and clueless.  Eliot loves all her girls, even the ones she did not give birth to.

 

Medoff tells the story from the first person perspective of Eliot.  Her portrayal of Eliot is intimate.  Medoff does a superb job of bringing her characters to life on these pages, but none more so than Eliot.  She is very real and achingly relatable.  Her strengths stand out; her flaws, though, are what really drive this story.

 

Eliot, by her own admission, is a “good girl.”  Yes, she is.  However, Eliot makes some bad decisions throughout Medoff’s story.  Some condemn Eliot for her actions, while others sympathize.  At its heart, this is a novel about the choices we make and their consequences, both short-term and long-term.

 

An old boyfriend resurfaces.  The sparks fly.  The presence of Finn distracts Eliot.  Everyone notices, especially Charlotte.  Eliot believes a week at the beach with her mother and sisters will help ease tension between her and Grant.  While the girls play in the ocean, Eliot’s phone rings.  It is Finn.

 

Her back is turned for one minute, maybe two.  The unthinkable happens.  Eliot is forced to make a choice: who should she save? Her real daughter?  Or her stepdaughter?  Medoff writes, “And this is what I know: I can swim in only one direction, toward one child…but I must make a choice and I must make it now.”  Whatever the case, nothing will ever be the same again.

 

Despite its grim subject matter, Medoff intersperses humor throughout her novel.  The hilarity in no way distracts from the story; instead, it adds to it.  Sometimes, even in the grip of despair, life can be funny.  Medoff makes me laugh and cry, once at the very same time.  Never has mowing, pooping, or eating dog food sounded so funny.  I applaud Medoff for telling the story in such a way.

 

Eliot is not the only character who stands out in this book.  Her sister, Sylvia (named after Sylvia Plath), is often a scene-stealer.  Eliot’s mother, Delores, is another of Medoff’s characters who demand your attention.

 

This is a story about love and family.  But the novel is also about sisters.  It matters little whether they are full, half, or even step.  A sister is a sister for life.  Medoff makes this only child wistful of the sisterly bond that Eliot and her sisters share.

 

I Couldn’t Love You More is women’s lit at its finest.  This is a far cry from chick lit.  Do not get me wrong: I am not disparaging chick lit in any way.  This is a story for women.  The issues Medoff writes about are subjects in which women deeply care about.  This tale is about women written for women that happens to have been written by a woman.

 

I predict I Couldn’t Love You More will be the read of the summer.  Medoff’s novel will be as essential to beach bags as sunscreen and beach towels.

 

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Spotlight on I Couldn’t Love You More

My current read is Jillian Medoff’s I Couldn’t Love You More.  It comes out on Tuesday and is already getting a lot of buzz.

It’s easy to understand why.  Funny, poignant, compelling, and highly readable, I Couldn’t Love You More is about a harried mom, her crazy life, and the road not taken.  Eliot’s college boyfriend shows back up after a looooong absence.  Although she is happy being a “quasi-wife,” the grass is always greener, as the saying goes.

The real scene-stealers of this book are Sylvia, Eliot’s sister, and Beth, mother of her “step”-children.

Medoff reminds us not to take anything for granted and to appreciate what we have.  Her novel will appeal to women this summer.  I predict this will be as essential to beach bags as sunscreen and beach towels.  This is women’s lit at its finest!

 

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