My Favorite Books: "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer"

This may seem like an odd choice for a “My Favorite Books” entry, but hear me out. It’s not your typical murder story (what is a typical murder story, anyway?). Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is not your average serial killer. And that’s the sheer brilliance of this uncomfortable novel.

Never was there ever such a pretty book about such a gross topic. This is a book about a Victorian man who kills virgins, shaves their heads, and bottles their scents. Could anything be grosser? Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is our “man,” a murderer and perfume apprentice in search of the perfect scent, and he finds it in London’s untouched women.

8497492Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a gross, horrible character. His mother gave birth to him while working at a fish stall, and she leaves him there to die among the fish offal. Grenouille cries out and is rescued, but his childhood is marked with the unnatural revulsion of his protectors and peers. A priest who holds baby Grenouille calls him the devil when he realizes that little Jean-Baptiste has no scent at all. Despite his conspicuous and somehow sinister lack of scent, Grenouille grows up with a superhuman sense of smell. He can distinguish individual scents from miles away, using his sense of smell to memorize the streets of Paris.

One day, when he is exploring Paris as a young apprentice, he catches a whiff of smell he hasn’t ever experienced before, something quite unlike the dirty, mucky smells of Paris. He follows his nose and happens upon a fourteen-year-old girl, a virgin, slicing plums. Grenouille is entranced by her smell, beholden to it, obsessed with it. It is the beginning of a calculated mania.

Completely devoid of knowledge of good and evil, cold and unfeeling as he is, Grenouille smothers the girl and smells her corpse until the scent dies with her. Grenouille is now wholly obsessed with finding “good” smells: finding them and bottling them. He apprentices himself to a perfumer, and with his unnatural skills, makes his master the most popular perfumer in Paris. But Grenouille leaves his master shortly after to pursue his perfect scent, and to find out more efficient ways to capture the smells of things only he can discern.

Grenouille realizes that the more he interacts with humanity, the more he hates people and what he thinks is their ignorance. He formulates a new goal: to control humanity with the world’s best perfume. To accomplish his task, he kills 24 virgins and shaves their heads, capturing their scents in oil. Then he discovers his crown jewel: the most beautiful young woman in Paris, a girl named Laure.

Disgusted yet? You haven’t heard the half of it.

I don’t know why I loved this book so much, and continue to think about it all the time. Why? Is it just me? Thankfully, a quick scan of Goodreads disproved my alleged perversity. No, I think the genius of this book is how it manages to hypnotize the reader until you’re almost as curious about the “perfect scent” as Grenouille is. It makes some startling statements about sexual depravity and desire. But at the heart of this novel is the question of identity, and how humankind relates to each other. Grenouille has no scent of his own, and is completely and utterly invisible to others when he is not wearing a perfume of any kind. His total ostracism from others causes his cold-blooded cruelty. What he is not a part of he cannot understand. Things like love. Or humanity. It’s a curious, gross little book that I really love.

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