by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb (July 2019)
I admit I have a deep affection for southern France. Any book about Provence with all its flowers, scenery, food, history and culture along with its temperate climate on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea interests me. Adding a bit of nostalgia to the mix adds to the enjoyment. This book is just the thing for a lazy end-of-summer afternoon.
The book’s subtitle is “A Novel of Princess Grace’s Royal Wedding.” Grace Kelly was perhaps the most popular and beloved American actress of the mid-1950s, a “girl next door” type. Her “fairy tale” courtship by and marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco is the core of this story around which other characters and events revolve.
The main female character is Sophie Duval. She inherited a perfume-creating business from her father, who taught her everything he knew about the art and science of it so she could continue it after he died. Happily, her heart and abilities (her “nose”) enabled her to pour everything she had into the business. It was her life.
Sophie owned property for growing flowers for perfume-making at the family home in Grasse, the world’s perfume capital. She also owned a retail shop and apartment in Cannes. When we meet her, she’s having dire financial issues and is being courted by greedy buyers who want those valuable properties. She is also being pressured to sell by a wealthy boyfriend (who eventually betrays her) and her alcoholic mother, neither of whom has her best interests in mind. Both are critical of her no matter what she does, and all Sophie wants to do is to create perfumes.
James Henderson is a British photographer sent to Cannes to cover the initial meeting of Kelly and Rainier. The world is hungry for any photos of Kelly, who is endlessly besieged by what we call “paparazzi” today. Henderson is more of an artistic photographer, but also needs to earn a living, so takes job assignments like covering the Kelly-Rainier meeting and whatever follows. He is the divorced dad of Emily, who is the most important person in his life and lives in England.
One day Kelly randomly enters Sophie’s shop in Cannes hoping to elude photographers who are chasing her, so Sophie hides her. Henderson was following Kelly and enters the shop, but he decides to accept Sophie’s lie that she’s not there.
In this encounter, a spark is struck between Sophie and Henderson. Over the next year they have little contact, but neither can forget the other. They realize something special is developing between them, but circumstances keep them apart until the royal wedding in April 1956. By then they realize they love each other, but once again circumstances pull Henderson back to England. I won’t disclose how this relationship turns out except to say that Kelly had a hand in bringing them together both in life and in death.
After Henderson leaves Sophie’s shop in 1955, she discovers that her mysterious hider is Grace Kelly. The kindness Sophie showed in helping her leads Kelly to inquire about her products. She is so impressed that she requests a custom fragrance for her sister, then for others. Kelly asks several companies to send samples of their perfumes specially designed for the wedding, then shocks the world by choosing Sophie’s “Coeur de Princesse” creation over those of well-known brands. The publicity and quality of the product eventually allow Sophie to solve her financial problems and not have to sell off her land and assets. Repayment for the simple act of protecting Kelly earned Sophie her friendship and her business, giving Sophie back her life.
Two things about this book make it stand out. The authors re-create the mania of that year in our history, from the initial meeting of Kelly and Rainier through the wedding. We learn of the insatiability of the public for ANY news of their queen of the screen and princess-to-be. Every newspaper, magazine, and tabloid sent photographers and other personnel to capture every possible photo, gossip tidbit, and occasional fact about their prey, no matter what it took or how invasive they had to be. There was so much money to be made, bosses were ruthless in their demands. That was certainly the ugly side of these events.
On the other side, the authors describe the beauty of the staged events. Kelly’s wardrobe, and especially her wedding attire for both the civil and church weddings, was nothing short of spectacular. Her gown for the church ceremony was created in Hollywood, so there was a cinematic aspect to the event which included decoration of various venues. The authors’ descriptions of it all capture the reader’s imagination. I suspect that millions of young girls dreamt of finding THEIR prince and having such a wedding. I also suspect more than a few married women lived vicariously through Kelly for awhile. The reality is that the fairy tale usually doesn’t extend very long after the wedding.
However, I’ve saved the best for last. The second thing that makes this book stand out is its wealth of information about the art of creating perfumes. Sophie’s father taught her several lessons:
–“To be a parfumeur is to be a detective.” Where does the scent take you? [p. 5, LP edition]
–“To be a parfumeur is to be a psychologist…. He said that everyone had deeply hidden insecurities, and that many people wished to be something more than they are. Our job… was to uncover what that something more was and to make it for them.” [p. 14]
–“To be a parfumeur is to be a keeper of memories. Every scent will remind you of something or someone.” [p. 18] (Perfume and music have this effect in common.)
Sophie’s father also taught her about the 3 stages of a perfume:
—Head notes are the first impression of a scent;
—Heart notes follow and are the heart of the perfume;
—Base notes are slow to diffuse and last the longest.
I’m sure most people have never thought in such depth or have knowledge about scents and perfumes as they are discussed in this book. I find it an intriguing topic and know I’ll think about scents differently from now on. This book may trigger interest in the topic for other readers, too.
The idea that Kelly lived a fairy-tale life was part of the hype promoted by the media and perhaps believed—or at least wished for her—by her fans. Kelly herself thought that the very idea was a fairy tale. She was a very strong woman who counseled Sophie to follow her heart and believed that “women can do anything they decide to do.” [p. 380] We can be sure that Kelly followed her own advice, and in a strange way, she enabled Sophie to do the same.