Book Review: The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert

Timothy Schaffert's The Perfume Thief is a page-turner set in Paris on the eve of World War II, where Clementine, a queer American ex-pat and notorious thief, is drawn out of retirement and into one last scam when the Nazis invade.

The heroine of Timothy Schaffert’s latest historical, The Perfume Thief, certainly stands out in a crowd. Clementine, an American ex-pat in her 70s, dares to dress in tuxedos and trousers at the height of the German occupation of Paris, a time when bucking convention or being outwardly “Other” is exceedingly dangerous.

But Clem, a queer thief-turned-perfumer, has never been one to heed society’s restrictions. 

When I first moved to Paris from New York, it was still the 1920s, and I had turned sixty. Here, my strangeness was a lure, not a trap, and strange people arrived. They were in costume but without disguise, you might say, entirely and utterly themselves. From this side of the looking glass, I finally recognized myself. These people I knew.

 

Here, a woman could put on a three-piece suit and a gentlemanly monocle without anyone calling the law. And these mischief-makers dared to think this could be the way of things from now on, this manner of living the way they wanted to live, of loving who they loved. Instead of changing themselves to fit in, they decided to change the world. Instead of becoming more like the people they weren’t, the people they weren’t might feel compelled to become more like them.

 

“We should have seen it coming, I suppose,” I mutter. The shift away from such freedom. Even if the Nazis hadn’t come along, it was inevitable, wasn’t it? Too good to be true?

 

“Who’s we?” Day says.

 

Who’s we? The queer denizens of Paris, who despite pasts that must pain them, and wounds they’re still licking, come to my shop seeking nostalgia.  

Still, she knows to be wary and to not draw too much attention to herself. The Nazis that infest her once beautiful city are only too happy to have any excuse to brutalize, arrest, or deport those who offend them. And just as Paris is Clem’s chosen home, she has a chosen family she wants to keep safe, too: Day the nightclub singer and Blue the would-be actor, the first like a younger sister and the second like a grandson, both queer like her and constantly in danger just by the nature of who they are. 

So when another nightclub performer, Zoe St. Angel, approaches Clem for her expertise both as a perfumer and a thief, she’s initially hesitant to get involved. Zoe, it turns out, is Jewish, and her father, a world-renowned perfumer, has gone missing. His diary, which contains his recipes and could expose his daughter’s true background, is now in the hands of the Nazi Oskar Voss. 

If I can help Zoe, I might be saving her from arrest, or from something worse.

 

I do have to be careful myself. I’ve relied for years on France’s lax extradition policies. If the Nazis send me back to America, I’ll lose my house, my bank accounts. I’ll be arrested for old crimes. Even a short jail sentence might kill someone as old as me.

 

…Nonetheless, such a prize would be my greatest theft. It’s tantalizing, the notion of stealing the scents of Paris back from the Nazis. Paris certainly rescued me.

What follows is a full-bodied and exceedingly fragrant tale of Clementine’s romantic past and the persecuted Paris of her present. This is a decidedly unique twist on the underground resistance, starring a most unusual spy/rebel, who dares to tell the truth while manipulating a Nazi bureaucrat. There are hundreds of stories dedicated to this time period, dozens of which are set in Paris, but none of those are told through the eyes of a queer elderly woman like Clementine. 

Schaffert imbues this story of resistance, love, and loss with hefty emotion. He’s that rare male author who can write a female voice that rings true; from the first page, Clementine leaps off the page as a complex, colorful character burdened with a lifetime of experiences. She’s never reduced to a cliché or caricature, thank God, and the supporting cast rife with queer and minority characters is never tokenized, either. 

The Perfume Thief has some thrilling moments, plenty of suspense, and frequently high stakes, but it’s far too poetic to be a mere espionage tale. Schaffert’s gorgeous prose elevates the narrative, engaging all of the senses with both bitter and sweet flavors. This feels more like a sumptuous art house film than a historical novel, and perfectly captures an inherently French spirit. 

Schaffert doesn’t spare any of the awful cruelties or depravations of the war, either, though. And he does a superb job of making the Nazi villains more than one-dimensional Bad Guys, too, making it clear they were also men with personal tragedies or external pressures—which only makes their choices all the more monstrous and reprehensible. 

This is a book perfect for historical novel fans in search of meaty, layered fare, who have grown tired of repetition but are still passionate for tales set in the early days of WWII. The Perfume Thief is also sure to resonate with queer and female audiences who’ve longed to see themselves represented as full people, who are frustrated with how often history has tried to erase their contributions. And it’s sure to delight those who enjoy evocative settings; this is a story that cocoons itself around you, until you could swear you smell Clementine’s newest perfume and feel the tweed of her suits. 

Like Clem’s perfumes, The Perfume Thief is a book that lingers long after you’ve set it down.

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