THE PERFUMER’S SECRET
Author: Fiona McIntosh
Michael Joseph Australia RRP $32.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
‘I am at one with Nature’s perfection – her beauty, her colours, her fragrances – and she has allowed me to glimpse it in a man.’
Pick up Fiona McIntosh’s latest novel, The Perfumer’s Secret, if you want to inhale a heady story fragranced with clandestine love, passion, war, duty, secrets and drama. From the beautiful cover to the back page, that’s exactly what you’ll get – drama, passion and a helluva story.
On the eve of the First World War, the Delacroix and De Lasset perfume dynasties forge an alliance with the marriage of Fleurette Delacroix to Aimery De Lasset. Business-wise, it’s a clever decision, one that will reap the families great benefits. The only trouble is, Fleurette loathes Aimery – this is a marriage of convenience for others, with no regard to her feelings. Her resistance is pointless and the marriage, albeit lacking the civil ceremony due to war matters, is blessed in holy union. She is saved from sharing his bed (‘Get into bed, Fleurette, and let me show you what I wish you to do for me’ p49) when the cathedral bells toll a call to action and men everywhere start marching to the drum of war. Saved by the bell, indeed. An unexpected letter from Sebastien, Aimery’s estranged brother, complicates things further; a secret is shared that will have the power to save her, and open the door to great passion, but will also risk both families’ perfume empires.
In Aimery’s absence, Fleurette is able to relax a little, even though he has forbidden her, as a woman, to have any involvement with the making of perfume. It’s a double blow for Fleurette, who has The Nose – the gift of an acute sense of smell and an ability to imagine and create ‘new perfumes that people haven’t yet imagined possible’ (p47). Aimery makes it clear that her role is to run his household, care for his children and ‘fulfil her wifely duties) (p48). This storyline explores the societal prejudice against women and the expectations that a woman’s place was in the home, and Fleurette’s growing resistance to such assumptions. It develops well, showing, as war took hold, how women survived and coped during war times, taking on roles that were once the domain of men. Fleurette has to find strength in her own resilience to set an example to others in the shattered community.
Passion abounds in this novel. McIntosh explores this strong feeling in a number of ways: from Fleurette’s resistance to her marriage to her brothers’ insistence it go ahead; from two lovers whose ‘helpless passion, chemical attraction’ (p163) foreshadows the fall of two families to a life taken in despair; from Fleurette’s revulsion at finding out the truth (‘the bile rose in my throat with angry determination’ (p172)) to her awakening understanding of the invisible force that is love; from secrets revealed in an angry showdown to a man acting ‘like a wounded dog’ (p346), striking out in anger. And of course, there’s Fleurette’s deep desire to make and create perfume despite ‘rules’. Some reduce passion to strong sexual desire and lust; McIntosh reminds readers that it is so much more.
Rich in detail, from wartime social history to the perfume-making process of days gone by, The Perfumer’s Secret is an emotionally charged story that will linger long after the book is finished. McIntosh knows how to tell a story, and this one is a treat.
Available from good bookstores. My copy was courtesy of Penguin Books Australia.