I pulled The Perfume Garden, by Kate Lord Brown, from the "to read" shelf as part of my new winding down before bed plan (in short, look at pages, not screens). That was a tactical error. Although 60 pages in I could tell you how every major plot point was going to unfold, twist, and weave around another lesser thread, I still couldn't put this novel down.
- Maybe it's being stuck at home and yearning for the free travel of the characters.
- Maybe it's the deeply sensual (as in luxuriously sensory, not as in a euphemism for sexual) descriptions.
- Maybe I just lacked discipline.
Whatever it was, I couldn't stop. I kept thinking to myself, "what are you doing - it's not that great." I had hours of "just one more page. Just one more chapter - they're short. I'll just read until [thing I know is coming] happens" Until finally it was 7 am and the book was done. I still can't tell you why.
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The central romance is charming and predictable. The supporting and background romances are static and predictable. The plot is entirely what you expect, and yet none of it is exactly boring - that's down to the setting.
The story is mainly set in Valencia, Spain. It uses the not-that-clever plot device of flashing forward and back between two storylines that entwine (that's not a spoiler - the connection is made immediately) - the older generation meeting during the Spanish Civil War and the principle characters (generations on) meeting in the early '00s. There are bits in England, but they only seem to serve as points of contrast. The plot is saved by its focus on the Spanish Civil War since it lends uniqueness to tales that have otherwise been told. England, where less of the story takes place, seems unspeakably drab by comparison.
If there is something special about this book, it may be the atmosphere Brown evokes. It's not as overwhelming as Rushdie or Ondaatje or Roy, with their South Asian humidity and jungle richness. The reader doesn't swim in this atmosphere so much as to be gently carried along by it. It clears the mind and makes the reader (at least this reader) feel as though they are taking deep breaths of the freshest mountain air. Part of the magic of that atmosphere comes from the central character's work as a perfume designer. The entire world of perfumery sounds like the most ideal balance of art and science, even for someone who doesn't like strong scents.
Brown's true weakness - even worse than her predictable plot - is her flat characters. The predictability of the story is the predictability of all people whose motivations are openly broadcast and unchanging. The bad people are very bad and the good people are very good. The sad moments are very sad. And the happy moments are bright and unblemished. Life just isn't like that. Humans aren't like that. And we sure don't talk like Brown's characters talk.
That said, I do recommend this book. It as a nice light read with some beautiful moments, and definitely steps above pulp fiction. I believe I could sit in an orange grove in Spain for hours and never tire of the setting. It's a sweet story nicely told. Nothing more or less.