Review: Perfume by Patrick Suskind


title:  Perfume

author:  Patrick Suskind

pages: 263

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-0140120837

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 3/5 [in the genre] or 5/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of classic literature and literary fiction with an old-fashioned feel.  Henry James, that sort of thing.  Anyone looking for something peculiar.  

will i read this author again?:  Maybe, maybe not.  
will i continue the series?:  N/A 

My Ratings Explained

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 frest-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.

take home message
A wrought tapestry of a novel about a peculiar man's murderous obsession and the strange humanness of scent.  A little dry, a little slow-moving, perhaps a little pretentious, but wholly original.  

the basics
I'll admit that my primary intention in picking up this novel was to indulge my obsession in all things Kurt Cobain (it's oft-cited as his favorite book).  I've tried not to let that connection color my review, and I think I've managed to maintain some objectivity.  Perfume was definitely an unusual and fascinating book, but it lacked some of the darkness and psychological rawness I've come to expect from similarly disturbing works (I'm thinking of Chuck Palahniuk when I say this).  It didn't lack for gruesomeness.  There are plenty of squirmy descriptions of the acquisition of scent that really got to me.  For the most part, Grenouille's brain is an open folio of depravity (sometimes in far too many words).  What I missed was the presence of Grenouille during the most deprave of all acts: the murders.  At this most important moment, we get a time lapse.  And for that, I felt a missed connection with Grenouille--his feelings during these visceral acts.  I wanted animal yearning.  I wanted the same perverse rawness I got from him during his first investigations into human scent.  I was disappointed.  I wanted that "story of a murderer" promised by the subtitle.  I wanted the psychological depth of Dorian Gray.  However, the novel recovers with a downward spiral into a devastating ending portrayed, as the rest of the novel, with violently precise diction.  I appreciated the read and enjoyed its bizarreness and obvious mastery of language, but (even for Kurt's sake) I don't think I'll be keeping it in my pocket.  

plot . 4/5
My main contention is above.  At a time when we should (in my opinion) feel closest and most involved with Grenouille, we're shifted forward months and left with a third-person summary of the murders.  Call me twisted, but I wanted to get inside Grenouille's head at that point--into the head of someone so alienated and singularly driven that they'd kill for it.  Otherwise, the plot is sprawling and jerky.  Not necessarily in a bad way, but I can imagine it being a turn-off for some readers.  It's old-fashioned.  Suskind begins with an account of Grenouille's childhood from others' perspectives and it's a long way off before we really meet Grenouille.  There's also a lot of cataloging.  Obviously Grenouille is obsessed with scent, and so most of his observations are scent-related, in excessively lavish detail that got me skimming.  I really hit stride with this novel during Grenouille's retreat from humanity and his weirdly profound self-discovery mid-way through, and then with his investigations into mimicking human scent after.  (Sans the bit I described above.)  It's not fast-paced or storylike.  It's reflective, ambling.  You're in Grenouille's head.  But I found it fascinating enough to keep turning pages.  Despite my quibbles, the ending was a bit of genius, a satisfyingly perverse culmination to a strange life.  

concept . 5/5
Man has no scent of his own and is thus found inexplicably strange by his fellow humans.  Man himself has a super-sniffer the likes that even Psych's Gus couldn't touch.  (Yeah, I just did that.)  Man encounters the scent of a prepubescent virgin and becomes criminally obsessed with obtaining the hallowed scent for himself, using all the tricks of perfumery at his disposal.  I really shouldn't have to explain more how cool that is.  Moreover, it's such an odd aspect of humanity that I've never seen so intricately discussed.  Suskind makes you take a hard look at horror and humanness, and where they intertwine.  

characters . 4/5
This is a silly novel, in a way.  It's impossible.  It's populated with caricatures because it's ironic at its core.  It's not a bad thing, but it does make it a little difficult to grasp onto anyone in particular.  Every human here is stretched to the outer limits of insanity and lasciviousness.  Arrogant perfumers.  Delusional scientists.  I don't think Suskind did a bad job, I just wasn't particularly bowled over either.  Grenouille is the obvious choice for best developed--as he should be.  Particularly during the self-discovery scene described above, I was able to immerse myself in his strange worldview and imagine, for a moment, being such a creature.  The cog missing in his presentation was the absence of his perspective during the murders.  I felt that I couldn't really know him without knowing this most extreme and vital part of him.  So as unique and fascinating as he was, he was still incomplete, for me.  

style . 3/5
I don't mind ornate and overwrought but I have my limits.  Aspects of the novel are Victorian, almost pre-Victorian.  For you English majors, it reminded me of Tristam Shandy.  For you non English majors, it's incredibly intricate and expository.  Some parts were beautiful and quotable, but others had that dryness I associate with early modern writing.  That aloofness, almost.  I can't quite explain it.  It's the difference between immersion and appreciation, I think.  And I could have done with half the number of scent names.  It's like a catalog.  I liken it to George R.R. Martin's clothes descriptions, detail down to the last button.  Dull, until it takes off into the more story-like aspects.  That said, Suskind has an admirable mastery of language and a very precise diction.  I can appreciate it, even if it didn't captivate me at all moments.  He's best when he's really gnawing into Grenouille's head.  

mechanics . 3/5
Did I mention longwinded lists of scents and scented objects?  Okay, then you've got my main complaint.  The pacing was also iffy.  I know it's not meant to be a traditional, chronological story.  I get that.  I've enjoyed plenty of stories that don't follow the story-ish mold.  I just took a good while to really sink my teeth into this one.  The first half is a bit too slow-moving for me.  

Note: I purchased this copy.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.


  1. I have this booj on my wishlist because I happened upon the movie a few years ago and it was visually beautiful yet repulsive at the sane time. So I imagine the book will be more so and it will definitely fill any plot inaccuracies.

    1. I have yet to see the movie but it's on my to do list. Visually beautiful yet repulsive is a good way to describe the book, too. Though perhaps not as dark as I was expecting.