WARNING: I TALK ABOUT SOME UNCOMFORTABLE THINGS/GRAPHIC IN THIS REVIEW
‘In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no shortage of gifted or abominable personages. His story will be told here.’
In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages. His name was Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and if his name has been forgotten today, it is certainly not because Grenouille fell short of those more famous blackguards when it came to arrogance, misanthropy, immorality, or, more succinctly, wickedness, but because his gifts and his sole ambition were restricted to a domain that leaves no traces in history: to the fleeting realm of scent . . .
What I thought:
I don’t think I enjoyed this book, at least there was a large part of it that I actively didn’t enjoy reading and my sister had to keep pushing me to pick up my Kindle and keep reading. There were other parts that I’m a bit unsure about and other parts that I think I enjoyed so bear with me. I‘m going to use my review to try and work out what I actually think.
Ok so the first thing to mention really and that sets the tone for this book is the reason I put the warning at the top; Grenouille’s birth. His mother is so dispassionate and has had so many stillbirths that she presumes that this is another one so when she starts have contractions she just ‘shoves’ out the baby onto a pile of rotting fish. It explicitly says that she doesn’t see the difference between the body of a stillborn child and rotting fish at the fishmonger stall she works out. Someone eventually notices Grenouille, but not because he makes any sound or cries for attention. From the beginning it is clear that this baby is different and he is given back to the church from the wet nurse pretty quickly on when she said there was something wrong with him. This moment really shocked me and I needed to read it a couple of times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and that I had read what I thought I had. There’s no shying away from the descriptions and makes it an uncomfortable read early on but also interesting. This is the world that your about to be immersed in and the people are living in such poverty in the slums of Paris that they can’t even take any time off for giving birth…
The book continues with Grenouille’s childhood being shunned/forgotten and him discovering that his scent of smell is more extreme than everyone else’s. He goes from being able to not just smell wood but know what type of wood it is and to be able to make imaginary perfumes in his mind from mixing the perfect amounts. Eventually he ends up in a perfumery and starts to learn how to make perfumes which is perfect for him until he smells the most perfect smell in existence. A young girl just starting to go through puberty. To make sure that he can keep that smell forever he kills her.
Which kinda comes from nowhere, he’s obsessed with the smell and then she’s dead; but to him she’ll live on forever because he has her personal scent stored in his head to recall whenever he wants. This is more than a bit creepy. Not the murder, I knew what I going to get with this book (murder is in the title after all) but wanting to keep a souvenir so he can recapture her scent for the rest of his life? Urgh. Anyway the important thing to note is that at this moment the gaining of the smell is just for personal reasons and it was a spur of the moment decision.
The middle part of the book is decidedly the weirdest part that my sister had to keep pushing me through Grenouille decides to travel and learn new tricks about the perfumery business and making smells. Except while he’s travelling he discovers he’s repulsed by the smell of humans, he has lived in Paris all his life so being in the countryside and actual fresh air is exciting. By walking away from the smell of humanity he finds a spot the furthest away from any city at the top of a mountain and lives there for at least 3 years. He licks the mountain wall for water and some bugs or plants for food. He spends pretty much all of his time living inside his own mind making a world from all the smells in which he is king and everyone loves him. There’s at least 4-5 chapters (50 odd pages) about this perfect world that he’s dreamed up. It was a real chore to slog through
Eventually he comes out of this perfect world to discover that he doesn’t have his own ‘human’ scent and that’s why people never noticed him. So he rejoins humanity and becomes a bit of a celebrity after making a scent that makes people like him.
Then he smells a pre-pubesent girl again and starts going on a murder spree, and cutting their hair so he can make a perfume using their smell. This time he plans it out and it’s not just about gaining more smells for personal use he’s able to refine and sell them.
It finishes with him getting caught and going to his own execution wearing a scent that screams GOD/LOVE ME and the crowd are so enveloped by the amount of love that there is a giant street orgy and Grenouille is immediately forgiven. Seriously 4 pages of a massive street orgy, and this book is studied at an extremely high level and is considered as ‘literature’.
But Grenouille still isn’t happy and realises that he despises humans because they can be manipulated so easily so he commits suicide by walking into the middle of a crowd and pouring the GOD/LOVE ME scent all over himself. He gets literally ripped to pieces by the crowd who want all want a part of him and fight over him like something at a Black Friday sale. (For the record you couldn’t pay me to go to a Black Friday sale in America. Although I would maybe consider it for a minimum of a million pounds).
(I jumped over a lot but a lot of it was just about how to make perfume and how amazing he is and better than everyone because he has better than everyone)
I just don’t ‘get’ this book. When it wasn’t actively fighting me it was just dull and odd. Also it is extremely graphic and descriptive but not about the normal kind of things. What things look like isn’t really important it’s all about the scent. Which sets the scene very vividly but differently and immediately had me on the back foot.
Frankly I’m not sure it ever pulled me back from the semi-stillborn/pile of rotting fish analogy. It probably didn’t help that it had been hanging over my head for so long. There is no likeable or redeemable character in this book, which for me makes it difficult to get into the world as main character is so vile. And even the supporting characters that come in and out of Grenouille’s life are all unlikable. I understand that we’re seeing them through Grenouille’s POV and he see’s himself as better than them but none of them does anything that could make me even think of maybe liking them. And with no one to properly grab hold of the book left me afloat a lot of the time and swimming against the tide.
When I finished I was glad more than anything but left feeling ‘huh’ I don’t actually know what I thought about it.
Why I read it:
My sister kept going on and on about how much I should read this book, I’ve trusted her advice about books all my life and she has rarely led me wrong (in fact I think Lolita and maybe this one are the only times I can think of that I didn’t enjoy her recommendation ). Because she’d been constantly going on about it for so long it did feel a bit like it was hanging over my head. I figured that with the Roald Dahl marathon I’d been on it would be nice to swap it up a bit.
I think I’m glad I read this, if nothing else because it feels like it’s a classic and it’s always nice to read things that are vastly different to what I normally read. Plus if I hadn’t read it my sister would still be nagging me.
So I’m glad I read it but I didn’t really enjoy it. I can just about understand why it’s studied though and I think I can see what others see in it, just didn’t grab my interest. I don’t actively dislike it, it’s not completely terrible. I was left not really feeling anything, which is almost worse than not liking something. At least then it’s brought about some form of reaction/emotion. It was just weird.
Would I recommend? Maybe, it depends what you like to read. I’ve got maybe one or two friends I would suggest it to but I would probably warn them about it before hand and wouldn’t be too surprised if it joined the DNF pile
Popsugar: About a villian/anti-hero.
This was the first book this year that I had to actively push through and didn’t enjoy. So far it’s the only book that I haven’t enjoyed and I hope it stays that way.
I’m now settled into my new job and have plenty of time to read and have worked out a new schedule for my blog so I should be getting back into a pattern of an update every couple of days or so.
Please comment and tell me what I missed about this book that makes it a classic
P.S My next book is ‘we come apart’