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The Perfume Thief

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Member Reviews

I've read all but one of Schaffert's books (and it's sitting on my bookshelf) so it will probably come as no surprise to anyone who's read my reviews of his books (The Swan Gondola, The Coffins of Little Hope, Devils In The Sugar Shop, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters) that this is one of my favorite books of the year. Clearly I'm biased. But I'm not alone in my praise. 
"Other authors have had clever takes on World War II spy novels, but none has created a voice like Clem’s..." - Los Angeles Times
"The Perfume Thief is a pulse-pounding thriller and a sensuous experience you’ll want to savor." - Oprah Daily
"Schaffert concocts a memorable work that oozes atmosphere and originality. . . It boasts beguiling characters who gain depth with each unveiled layer." - Book List
Kirkus Reviews is not so nice. They complain that the bad guys are not menacing enough and that the terrors are mostly offstage. To the first point, I disagree. There is a constant low hum of unease in this book because we understand what these men are capable of doing. To the second point, yes, terrors are mostly offstage; for that I was grateful. We've all read enough books about World War II and the Nazis to know that they did terrible, unspeakable things to people. We understand that trust is a hard thing to come by in an occupied city, where some people will do whatever they have to do to save themselves and others may well agree with the occupiers. There are an abundance of characters here Schaffert doesn't need to make that the focus of his book. 

Voss and Clem are playing a cat-and-mouse game and we're never quite sure who is the cat and who is the mouse. Schaffert could have crafted a book wherein his hero never made a misstep, where her plan worked perfectly and they were always one step ahead of the Nazis. But that's not this book. While Clem understands exactly what might happen to her and the people she cares about, she still believes that she is clever enough to outsmart Voss...until she isn't. I never once felt entirely comfortable. Kirkus Reviews is wrong - I spent this entire book worried that Voss was on to Clem, that Lutz would kill Zoe, that Day would push her luck just a bit too far. 

What Kirkus Review should have focused on was Schaffert's amazing (as always) characters. Clem is a character unlike any you've read before, with a story you've never heard before. Day, Blue, and even Voss have stories that could stand on their own. Or, instead of writing off the beauty of Schaffert's writing, they could have focused on his amazing descriptions and his beautiful writing.
"And the fields of war are full of ghosts who wish they could go back to that one split second that separates them from life and death. There've been so many lives undone by a misstep, a wrong turn, a hair trigger."
"Paris, our village, has fallen victim to a fairy-tale curse. The sun rises; the moon drops. The cogs of the clockworks tick-tock north-south, or east-west, in whatever direction they've always turned but time itself has turned to fog. The days: they don't seem short. They don't seem long. What day even is it?"
And, despite what Kirkus says, Schaffert does make us see what life in occupied Paris was like.
"The other night, we got our hands on a roasted chicken that was more likely some songbird, a back-alley jackdaw dropped by a slingshots. nWe cut into his plump breast and found it mostly empty, like he's died with his lung puffed up with a half-whistled melody. We ate the little bird like tender wolves, stripping it down to its skeleton, going so far as to break off bones to suck. Food is scarce in Paris, but the Nazis eat fine."
I recently said that a book was 100 pages too long, in no small part because it was overflowing with descriptions. But here Schaffert awakens every sense here and it never seemed to much. 
"My building has become a factory, a distillery, cellar to attic, a gasworks of copper pipes corkscrewing through the parlor's ceiling and up through the kitchen floor, winding around the bedposts, whistling like snakes with a lisp. The building's strange acoustics, and all the perfumery's pipes and vents, warp and bend our voices. Sometimes you can whisper in someone's ear from another room." 
"I suggest the ballet dancer (the scent o talc, sweat, leather, the sharp sour-sweet of roses turning to mold), and she says no. I suggest the journalist (typewriter ribbon, a struck match, the tart ash in the bowl of a hasish pipe) and she says no to that too."
"The tapestries and wallpapers, the sofas and chairs, are all in powder blues and rose pinks and sea greens, like dusty meringues in a pastry-shop window. Zoe grew up among antiques, probably tiptoeing across the Aubusson carpets women with portraits of unicorns in the fields of thistle. She sat in the walled-in rose garden behind the house hosting tea parties of her own, with dolls with human-hair pompadours and sait ball gowns, with felt mice in bow ties infesting her paper macarons and glass candy. Such a life."
 This is a book to delight the senses. It is also a book of truths and lies, love and hate, deceit, romance, secrets, forbidden love, and friendships. I loved it. It's the book I've been waiting months for.
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Wow! Timothy's writing! This was my first book by him and certainly will not be my last. It can be tricking wading through the dozens of WWII novels and trying to keep them straight in my brain, but The Perfume Thief definitely stood out. I was enthralled by the story of the queer protagonist as we journeyed through brothels during the Nazi occupation. I will definitely be recommending this one to friends as it offers a unique perspective on WWII through a lens we don't often look through. Kudos to Timothy Schaffert!
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Seventy-two-year-old Clementine is a queer American ex-pat and notorious thief who lives in Paris. She specializes in making perfume for all varieties of ladies. When the Nazis invade her town, she becomes involved with a bureaucrat who has access to a secret that could kill Clem's friend. To draw close to her mark, she tells the stories of her past loves and crimes. But will she be able to save herself and the ones she loves? 
I enjoyed the history of perfumeries and insight into the queer resistance, which I had not heard of before. Information about the resistance was also interesting. I'm also glad the author used a mature person for the main character. I enjoyed reading about her past and tying all the pieces together. For instance, why she didn't like butterflies and why she fled to Paris.  
The story does plod in places and could have been edited a bit tighter.
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As an avid reader of WW2 Historical Fiction, the premise of this book was immediately intriguing to me. (SPOILERS BELOW)

What I liked: 

Clementine is a fascinating character—definitely different from the all-too-common ‘young woman in her early 20s’ main character I’ve read time and time again in this type of setting. 

I very much enjoyed the LGBTQ focus, both in the present and in Clem’s flashbacks during her younger years, as it’s definitely a perspective that I’ve not yet encountered in a WW2 Historical Fiction novel. 

What I felt was a bit lacking:

Though the characters were all intriguing to me, I felt that something was missing at times—I craved to know them on a deeper level, particularly Blue, M, Day, and Voss.

The parts with Clem and Voss often felt too drawn out and ‘the same’. I wish there had been a bit more variety and/or tension during their ample time spent together in the book.

The ending fell a bit flat to me. I didn’t expect the cliche ‘happily ever after’ in a WW2 based novel of course. However, there was no feeling of ‘satisfaction’ at the ending. Voss has Day killed, Clem reveals she recently found out that M passed away via a letter from M’s daughter. Sure, she snagged the formula page from the perfume diary and sent it somewhere safe, but…something felt like it was missing. Revenge against Voss via poison in perfume via Clem would have made the ending much sweeter, in my opinion.

Overall, I did enjoy the story, and still crave to read more about Clem's past adventures--and if she and Blue manage to pull through WW2.
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I have mixed feelings about THE PERFUME THIEF. On the one hand, the writing is top notch. Truly remarkable. The author does a great job at evoking the scenes and writes with a very sure hand. You feel you are in the hands of a master. The amount of description strikes a good balance; it sets the scene without overpowering the narrative.

The voice is also quite strong and immediately grabs you from page one.

My concerns are two-fold. First, Clem/Clementine is described as such a fascinating character, but it falls a little flat because we don't get to know her, or rather, it takes a really long time to get to know her. I wanted more intimacy from the beginning. Instead, the author spends a lot of time focusing on the side characters. While they are interesting, they almost serve as a distraction.

Second, the pacing drags a bit. It seems like this is going to be a very plot driven narrative, but it's really not. This is a character-driven story. Once I realized that, I settled in for the ride and found it satisfying. So that really depends on the reader's expectations.

Recommended for fans of literary or character-driven historical fiction.
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Thank you for the opportunity to read this book! It wasn’t my favorite read, so I’d prefer not to leave negative reviews on other sites.
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Clementine was born on a small farm in the Midwest, but never quite fit: from her hand-me-down boys’ clothes trimmed in lace to her apparent invisibility in the eyes of her neighbors and the church women who frequented her childhood home to bestow ‘goodness and generosity’ upon her family, she’s always been different. Moving out as soon as feasible, she travelled the Midwest taking on work (and learning skills) that would benefit her in the future. Her future was as a con-woman: substituting cheap ingredients for expensive ones in perfumes, learning to maintain her invisibility in order to procure rare items (or pass them along) to wealthy clients. Only ever truly falling in love not long after her arrival in New York, she still, all these years later, holds a flame for M, and the skills taught at their hand.  

Now during the German Occupation of Paris, Clementine has a ‘charge’ in Blue – a young man who arrived to ‘learn’ in the house she occupies but finds far different. Her best friend Day Shabille (note the play on words) a cabaret singer and an ex-Pat, and several connections throughout the city that allow her to continue her perfume crafting and move throughout the world, mostly unseen. But the arrival of a new chanteuse on the scene, and an introduction from Day puts Clem in the Nazi’s sights. Zoe Angel is young, beautiful and the toast of the town, also ‘kept’ by an officer in the penthouse suite over the most popular (and protected) bordello in town. Zoe has secrets, but she must trust in Clem and her cleverness to keep them and see a way to save them all.  

With a dangerous plan hatched to inveigle her way into the trust of Voss, an officer in charge of ‘valuing and cataloguing’ the ‘finds’ as the Reich loots Paris homes and displaces its Jewish population: Clem uses her skills, alternately charming and being charmed by Voss who, to all appearances at first, is a Francophile and interested only in the beautiful things.  Twisty and turny – this small community of the displaced: gay, lesbian, not quite sure they are either (as Clementine often repeats) actors, jazz lovers, artistes and simple people are determined to provide some level of difficulty to the occupiers: despite the many dangers to themselves.   

What Schaffert has done has provided a story of identity and beauty during a time when everything (and everyone) was determined to stay invisible and unnoticed, even the greyness of the buildings and the weather were welcome – where little moments of satisfaction and even a basic happiness were to be carefully guarded, hidden and savored lest they be snatched away. While we all know of the more ‘apparent’ French Resistance movements and are aware of the undercurrent of fear in the general population of the city – this story and the writing provide us a low-level yet constant wakefulness and watchfulness, as the people highlighted within are all anathemas to the rhetoric, moral tone and taste of the occupying Nazis – at least in public. A lovely read that creeps up on you – takes time to develop until you are alongside and watching each moment, breath held until the conclusion.  

I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility. 

Review first appeared at <a href=” /” > <a> I am, Indeed </a>
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I have read quite a few books about WWII, this one is probably one of the most unique. From the perspective of a older, gay woman! A look at her world. This takes place in 1941 Nazi occupied Paris. I learned a lot about perfume, scents, and the power of a scent. Not much action, which is more typical of a WWII novel, but a very interesting read.
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Love this book!  1941 Paris.  Offbeat characters.  Interesting and unusual storyline.  Take a stroll through Paris and visit bordellos and cabarets.  Clementine, a 71 year old gay woman who has lived an amazingly interesting life will feel like a friend you'd love to have a glass of wine with just to hear her stories and hope she'll make you a bespoke fragrance.
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What a refreshingly unique WWII historical fiction story. This is a character-driven story about Nazi-occupied Paris in 1941.  Clementine is a seventy-one-year-old American living in Paris, a retired thief who spends her time with artists, singers, and actors.  In Nazi-occupied Paris, the members of her circle, many of whom are part of the LGBT+ community, exist in an outcast position, intent on remaining invisible to or appeasing the Germans.  

Clementine is soon enlisted by a cabaret singer for her thieving expertise.  Zoe, the singer, has piqued the interest of a Nazi, but she's hiding that she's Jewish and that her dad, a famous perfumer, had a book containing all the secrets of Paris's most famous scents.  Zoe needs Clementine to locate the book and hide it from the Germans, who are intent on stealing as much of Parisian culture as they can. 

This story meandered through Paris in 1941, and while it was a bit of a slow burn in terms of plot, it was an engaging story that I was invested in immediately.  The narrative voice felt so unique and developed that, as a reader, I really felt in the middle of the story.  I've read a lot of WWII fiction, but this story felt fresh and unlike the many other books I've read.  For one thing, it highlights the LGBT+ community and their stories during the war.  For another, it focuses on art and the power of scent and its ability to link to memory, family, and hope (or, alternatively, trauma).  

This wasn't a five-star read for more because I expected a little bit more conflict throughout and I felt the story could've benefitted from a bit more wrapping up. That being said, I do think some of my expectations were informed by previous historical fiction books I read, and I'm sure there will be readers who love this story completely. 

I highly recommend for reads of The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah and lovers of historical fiction with fresh twists and perspectives.
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I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Not my typical read.and little.too slow for. A thief looking for perfume secrets in the world of Paris and seedy clubs. Characters are weird but interesting. This book will find it's audience.
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The Perfume Thief is a historical fiction book with a bit of a twist. The book takes place in Paris during the German occupation of World War II. Clementine is a 72-year-old American living in Paris. She has lived her life as a con artist. Clem, as she is called in the book, escaped to Paris and opened a perfume shop in 1930. She is known for her elegant suits, which she wears almost all the time. Despite her reservations, Clem agrees to help Zoe St. Angel find the book of recipes from Paris’s most famous perfumer. The book has disappeared. So has the perfumer but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope for him because he was Jewish. To help her search, Clem befriends Oskar Voss, a Nazi officer who thinks he knows all about Paris. Voss is living in the missing perfumer’s house. In order to keep Voss’s interest, Clem tells him her life story – some of which he appears to already know. She has to appear to be helping the Nazi so that she has access to search the house. She also lightly poisons him to make him sick and more dependent on her.</p>

The book has a vast array of characters both in Clem’s present day in Paris and in her murky past. She has been in love once in the past and that relationship had a major impact on her life. She is contacted by her lover’s daughter so she knows that the woman has died.</p>

Is this my favorite book of the year? No. It is also far from the worst book I have read and I did read the entire book. (In contrast to a book I was looking forward to reading and only got 1/3 of the way in and stopped.  Sorry, Graham Norton! No review for your latest.)  Once again, I don’t think you should put it on the top of your TBR pile but if you run across it, you could enjoy it.</p>
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I have to admit that I was expecting more of a mystery/thriller type book with the main character, Clementine, being a notorious thief who's called out of retirement. I wasn't disappointed though when I discovered it's more of a character driven historical fiction that's well researched. I was swept away by the descriptions of scent and perfumery and was able to see a side of WWII Paris that I haven't seen before. Not sure if I see the Gentleman In Moscow comparison but definitely Moulin Rouge. It's an entertaining read and I highly recommend it!
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The Cabaret Scene in 1941 Paris

Clementine, a seventy-two-year-old American ex-pat, has found a home in Paris. In spite of the Nazi occupation she doesn’t want to leave. She left her old life as a con-man and thief behind when she settled in a Paris to run a small shop specializing in perfumes she mixes for the artists in the cabaret scene at the fringes of society. 

Clem is asked by her friend Day Shabille, based on Josephine Baker, to help another cabaret singer, Zoe St. Angel. Zoe is hiding the fact that she’s Jewish. Her father, a perfumer, has been taken by the Nazis and a Nazi businessman is living in his house. She wants Clem to steal his perfume book so that no one discovers that she was the inspiration for one of his famous perfumes.

The descriptions of the Paris nightlife in the cabarets is wonderful. It’s very atmospheric and makes you see Paris during the Nazis occupation. I thought that was the best part of the book.

Clem is a fascinating character. She wears men's clothes in a time when it was dangerous to be a lesbian or indeed anyone who was outside the social mores of the era. I liked her. Her memories, which form much of the story, give an engrossing picture of the time in both France and America.

The pace of the book was a little slow if you like lots of action. Much of it consists of Clem’s memories and descriptions of Paris life in 1941.

I received this book from Doubleday Books for this review.
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I LOVED this book.!! All of my senses were heightened with the luscious descriptions of places, plot, and characters. Romance, intrigue, queer spy, perfume theft -- I absolutely imagined all of this to have happened during the Nazi occupation of Paris in WWII.
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Historical fiction centered around WWII could be an entire genre in and of itself.  There's All The Light We Cannot See, The Nightingale, and The Paris Library, just to name a few.  One would think that everything on this subject has already been written.  And you'd be wrong.  I believe this is because WWII really was a world-wide event, that everyone on the planet was affected in one way or another.  The Perfume Thief, by Timothy Schaffert, comes from the perspective of people on the fringe of Parisian society:  gays and lesbians, prostitutes, singers, actors, and entertainers.  These are people who the Nazi's either loved or hated (or both).  If you were a member of one of these groups, you could never feel safe, as the Nazis would applaud them one day, and then round them up and send them to camps, the next.  

Perfume is actually the perfect metaphor for this ever-changing state of danger.  Fragrance evokes powerful memories, and yet can smell different on different people, or in different seasons. And the same smell can make each person react differently.  It's all in the eye (or nose) of the beholder.  

This is a story, not just of WWII, but of memories.  Clementine, who is in her seventies, is hardly your typical senior citizen.  She has lived an extraordinary life as a lesbian in eras from the Gilded Age in America through the Roaring Twenties, the Great War, and now WWII.  Her memories are held as various perfumes and what meanings they had for her.  This was a more cerebral book than I thought it would be.  The characters, unusual storytelling, and insight into the world of perfume made this an outstanding reading experience.

What I Liked:

Historical Details:

Clementine's entire world is centered around perfume.  She uses it to help people recall memories of lost loves, nostalgic childhoods, exciting vacations, or whatever her clients want to cling to.  The language used in this book is lush in its details that conjure images of steamy nights, and exotic locales. 

 There are also details that I hadn't known about concerning Paris during the occupation.  Jewish businesses, seized by the Nazis, became private department stores of pilfered Jewish goods.  Rich Parisians, Nazi Officers, and others had their choice of what was stolen from the Jews,  It was quite disturbing.

The novel also details the cabaret and bordellos of Paris.  These establishments mostly catered to Nazis. But the novel shows that the people who ran these businesses couldn't have chosen to turn the Germans away. It's sad to remember that many of the women who became pregnant by Nazis were tormented at the end of the war, and often killed, for being seen as collaborators.  But most of them had no choice in the matter.


I love how Clem forms many strong friendships with people of different ages.  She has friends her own age, but she also befriends young people, as well.  But she does not take on the role of a parent to these younger people.  I found this refreshing.  Older people don't need to become a "mentor" to people just based on their age difference.  But she does worry about her friends as the Nazi occupation drags on.  As more and more homosexuals are targeted and sent away to camps, Clem is very concerned with protecting her young male friend named Blue.  As Blue starts to take risks, Clem worries that she is the only one to see the danger ahead. 

Day is another memorable character.  Fashioned after the great Jazz signer, Josephine Baker, Day is an African-American woman who has settled in Paris after years of missed opportunities in America.  With one mega hit song to her credit, she is a popular entertainer in Paris.  But even though she is not French, she takes risks moving information from Nazi's to the Resistance.  I loved Day's spirit.  

Zoe is another entertainer in the nightclub that Clem frequents.  This is one of those situations where you can't tell, from first glance, how she is resisting.  She is having an affair with a Nazi officer, after all.  But, really, she doesn't have a choice in the matter.  If a Nazi officer wants to make you his mistress, their is little a woman can do.  But Zoe remains strong.


As Clementine narrates the story, we read snippets of her extraordinary, long life.   From a girl on a farm, to an woman who daringly wears men's clothing, Clem has lived life on her own terms.  There are letters between Clem and her one great love, spanning decades.  In order to ingratiate herself with a Nazi, she tells stories of her life as a con artist and thief.  These elements, as well as Clem simply recalling her many exploits, makes for a rich tapestry of storytelling. 

Ordinary People Fighting Back:

All of the people in this book, each in their own way, find ways to resist the Nazi's.  Although it would seem like the people working in the brothels are collaborating with their oppressors, that is far from the case.  Several of the prostitutes are spying on the soldiers, and they find ingenious ways to send messages to the established Resistance.  Plus, many of the characters resist in other ways.  The singers in nightclubs might sings songs in English.  People go out in the evening, daring the Nazi's to round therm up for being out past curfew.  Even Clem's choice to wear men's clothing is a risk, as a Nazi might decide she is a lesbian and make an example of her.


The depictions of the perfume industry was truly fascinating.  From the design of each bottle, to the ways in which the perfumes were manufactured, this was a true marriage of science and art.  The story centers around a mysterious diary of a famous Jewish perfume maker.  One of the characters is related to the creator of the diary, and if this connection is discovered, it would be a death sentence.  Clem vows to find the document before the Nazis do.  This leads to a journey of reflection as Clem uses her immensely interesting life to entertain the Nazi officer who is also in search of the elusive object.  It's a game of cat and mouse that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
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Reading this book was like being trapped on a flight next to a garrulous person who thinks he's much more interesting than he really is. Clementine, the narrator, is a retired thief who was so good books had been written and movies made about her... but we never see any of those exploits. Instead the main plot, about the hunt for the hidden diaries of a Jewish perfume maker in Occupied Paris, is continually interrupted by reveries about Clementine's decades-long infatuation with M and about improbable (and rather nauseating, to my mind) olfactory concoctions. The perfumes Clementine makes for her clients aren't the only improbable elements of the story. Yes, the author's note at the end explains that much of the story was rooted in fact, but none of it seemed very believable to me. And if a novelist makes the truth seem unbelievable, well, I don't think he did his job.

I'm giving this three stars rather than two because I did manage to finish it, the premise is intriguing, and there were a few genuinely moving moments.

Thank you, NetGalley and Doubleday, for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.
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REVIEW ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert is the story of Clementine, an aging reformed con artist and thief, whose life of crime has taken her to worlds as glamorous and chic as the masculinely tailored suits she wears unapologetically. The year is 1941 and the Nazis occupy Paris. Zoe St Angel, Madame Boulette’s most prized songbird, implores Clem to procure the recipe book of a famous Parisian perfumer who has vanished at the hands of the Nazis who are taking control of all Jewish owned businesses. If the book falls into Nazi possession it could reveal that Zoe is also Jewish since she is the perfumers daughter. The perfumer’s house is now occupied by Oskar Voss, a Nazi bureaucrat who wants the book and Clem’s knowledge of perfume to secure his own allegiance with Hitler himself. Clem devises a plan to gain Voss’s trust while working to defuse a diabolical scheme that could turn the war in the Nazi’s favor. Can Clem become Voss’s ally while still remaining loyal to Paris? Can a single scent hold the key to the outcome of a world war?⠀
The Perfume Thief is a mesmerizing and intoxicating read. Every page overflows with lush hypnotic descriptions of the underground world of Nazi occupied Paris. This meticulously drawn story is a treat for all the senses. The reader can almost see the streets of Paris on the brink of war,  hear the sound of the jazz from the speakeasies, smell the scent of every exotic perfume dabbed upon a wrist, taste the champagne and feel of the fine fabrics of chic garments now only attainable by the Nazi elite. The characters are multi-faceted and impeccably crafted to be as unforgettable as Paris itself. It is obvious that this powerful novel is the product of countless hours of painstaking research. The book grabs the reader by the nose and pulls them through on a scented cloud with superb writing, a taut plot and heroic and vulnerable characters. This is one story not soon forgotten. ⠀
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I'm halfway through and I'm still waiting for something interesting to happen. I feel like the author was more interested in trying on flowery prose (some didn't work I'm sorry to say) or going for some old Hollywood feel in the middle of WWII Europe...than actually telling an engaging story with dynamic characters that have to face a very difficult time in history.
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I enjoyed that this book was unlike anything I've read from this time in history in that it followed the LGBTQ community in Paris during WWII.  The story was good,m but I felt like there were some parts that were too long.
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