Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, was recommended to me by a friend several years ago. I shelved it on the back burner as one of those books to read when the mood for something gripping struck me. Fast forward five (six, seven?) years and I finally have an excuse to read it – a three person book group read, myself included. Joy.
For the record this is one of those books that numerous patrons and folks at the book store I work in have told me is a “must read”, so I know virtually everything about it at this point. There were no surprises because all of the highlights had been revealed prematurely. It’s like hearing people talk about the Stieg Larsson books, about Salander’s rape and revenge. By the time I got around to reading it I was completely desensitized to the horror of those page (good thing too, I don’t handle rape plots very well). The same can be said about this book. “Oh, you must read Suskind’s Perfume. It’s about a guy who murders women to capture their scents! It’s brilliant!”
Fine and good, but brilliant is truly subjective in this case. Let me rephrase that. I liked the book, but I felt underwhelmed considering it had five (six,seven?) years of praise heaped upon it before my perusal. I also felt that the events leading up to the protagonist’s demise were completely drug out. The whole ending is overlong. And unbelievable. I was on board until the ending but it lost me somewhere along the way.
I feel a little conned. To be fair the reader is supposed to; that’s a big part of the book’s appeal. We follow the charlatan Grenouille from his birth to his death (like all good pre-Victorian type novels). Grenouille is in possession of the finest, most acute, sense of smell, and he is also obsessed with distilling the greatest scent the world has ever known. I say he is a charlatan because he spends the better part of the book boasting about his abilities (mostly within internal dialogues) while simultaneously learning the craft of his bombast. Like I said, I feel a little cheated. This mountebank is one of the most one-dimensional, vain, insufferable characters ever to write 250+ pages about… and I ate up every bit, and licked the spoon afterwards.
I feel like everyone who has told me about this “must read” has misled me just a bit. This whole book feels false, and yet I can’t utterly despise it. There is a certain something compelling about the story of this huckster. This “devil”. This indescribable narrator. Maybe if I had not had the whole story revealed to me (before reading it, as I am doing now) I would not have felt so duped. Maybe that’s not the right word… so torn on whether this book is a masterful piece of fiction, or a complete let down. At times I felt unequivocally seduced. At other times bamboozled. It’s a weird book to talk about.
I’m giving it a tentative 4 out of 5 stars. I didn’t hate it. I just wanted something else. Frankly, I really didn’t want him to resort to grubby murder to attain his ends. He’s a creator, an artist, a master. I wanted him to create his master scent, not to steal it. He would have been more sympathetic.
4 out of 5. Yeah, that seems right. I’ll be seeing the movie this week.
– Follow the Reader –