Book Review: “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” by Patrick Süskind

Warning: If you have not read “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” by Patrick Süskind, do not read this review if you want to avoid spoilers. However, if you already read the book or if you don’t mind spoilers, feel free to read this!

Another book review is here, and this time I’m taking a look at “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind! I found this on a list of recommendations for those that enjoyed reading “The Secret History,” and I figured I would try reading it. Here’s a summary so we know what it’s about:

An acclaimed bestseller and international sensation, Patrick Suskind’s classic novel provokes a terrifying examination of what happens when one man’s indulgence in his greatest passion — his sense of smell — leads to murder.

In the slums of eighteenth-century France, the infant Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born with one sublime gift — an absolute sense of smell. As a boy, he lives to decipher the odors of Paris, and apprentices himself to a prominent perfumer who teaches him the ancient art of mixing precious oils and herbs. But Grenouille’s genius is such that he is not satisfied to stop there, and he becomes obsessed with capturing the smells of objects such as brass doorknobs and fresh-cut wood. Then one day he catches a hint of a scent that will drive him on an ever-more-terrifying quest to create the “ultimate perfume” — the scent of a beautiful young virgin. Told with dazzling narrative brillance, Perfume is a hauntingly powerful tale of murder and sensual depravity.

Translated from the German by John E. Woods.”

The book reads like an omnipresent, 3rd person narrator literally dictating the life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, our main protagonist, making the writing style of the book feel very biographical and recounting history. The timeline of the book is made very clear, from Grenouille’s birth, through the French Revolution, all the way to the end of his life, even putting in exact historical dates to help guide the reader. With this in mind, the entire plot of the story is none other than his whole life, beginning to end. However, because the entire plot of the story is his whole life from beginning to end, there were some parts that lagged a bit, particularly when Grenouille spent seven years in the mountains by himself, and I found myself deliberately reading faster so I could get to later sections of the book.

Because Grenouille has such a sensitive nose for scents, the book doesn’t shy away from describing every kind of scent possible back in the eighteenth century, from the stench of urine and other horribly-smelling items to the sweeter scents of perfume, to the scent of fresh air in the countryside itself. I liked having this imagery of scent, given how the book is centered on someone with a unique sense of smell, and it helps to put the reader into Grenouille’s shoes and understand what he feels and senses wherever he goes.

Grenouille as a character is very interesting to see develop. Given his sense of smell, it doesn’t take him long to pride himself on it, calling himself the “best nose in France” and using his abilities to recreate perfumes, as well as make his own. The other characters that appear in Grenouille’s life, from Madame Gaillard to Giuseppe Baldini, slowly if not quickly grow aware that there Grenouille has this talent and that he hides more than just being a great perfumer, but don’t necessarily know what it is. This is especially emphasized when Grenouille is first born, with one of the wet nurses stating that he doesn’t smell like how normal children should smell. They’re not incorrect to assume such, given that Grenouille’s sensitive nose becomes his guiding compass of sorts, going as far as killing people because he liked their scent and wanted to keep them locked in his memory forever and even experimenting on them to try to do so.

Overall, I would rate this book 4.5 out of 5 stars, only taking away the 0.5 stars due to the lagging plotline. If you’re looking for something that reads like a biography but isn’t actual history, as well as really good scent imagery, I’d recommend this to read.

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