Book Review: Jitterbug Perfume


When I first came across Jitterbug Perfume, I was intrigued. First of all, the title only is pretty darn interesting. Second, it was one of the entries under an Immortality Reading List. Hail the immortals! (There can only be one).

Jitterbug Perfume is a pretty old book, having first been published in 1984. The chances of getting it in today’s bookstores is pretty much nil nor was it available in my local library so I was pretty happy when I found it listed for sale in the Amazon Kindle bookstore!

Jitterbug Perfume follows four parallel tales: one is the story of Alobar, an ancient Bohemian king who escapes regicide by his tribe whose custom it is to kill off their leader at the first sign of aging. He then goes on to seek immortality along with an Indian woman named Kudra who also escaped death by widow burning. Both Alobar and Kudra eventually attain immortality via a certain regime of breathing, eating, bathing and, of course, sex. Kudra is also a maker of incense and aromatics.

Meanwhile, in the present day, there’s Priscilla, a ‘genius waitress’ who works in a crappy Mexican restaurant in Seattle by day and is an amateur perfumer by night, and her stepmother Madame Devalier, who is a perfumer struggling to keep her business afloat in New Orleans. Both women are trying to recreate the scent found in an ancient perfume bottle and both of them believe this perfume is the key to future success and riches.

Success, however, already belongs with Marcel LeFever, an eccentric and highly skilled perfumer who works with his uncle and cousin at the highly successful LeFever perfumery corporation in Paris. However, both his cousin and uncle are worried about Marcel’s increasingly bizarre antics, especially when Marcel receives an invitation to the Laugh Last Foundation, which purports to have found the secret of immortality.

I highly enjoyed reading Jitterbug Perfume. Tom Robbins’ writing reminds me of the works of Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, with that matter-of-fact, dry, witty kind of narration, so much so that I had to check on the Internet to find out if Tom Robbins was British. (He’s not. He’s American.) (also, interestingly, Tom Robbins’ take on gods and their power is similar to that which is explored in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods). His characters are really likable – smart and sometimes silly (but in a good way, not an annoying way) and just trying to get along in life as best as they can. You find yourself just rooting along for all of them. The book touches on the topics of immortality, individualism, religion, perfume and the significance of possessing a sense of smell, but not in a preach-y kind of way. Refreshingly, the immortals are not radiantly beautiful, perfect creatures the way they are in most fantasy books these days. Kudra and Alobar’s immortality might come with several benefits, including the ability to retain their youthful looks, but they’re still quite human in all other matters. The way this book explores how humans might deal with immortality if they’re ever presented the gift is worthy of a book club discussion.

Jitterbug Perfume is a book I’d definitely recommend to others. I’m not sure if I’ll read other Tom Robbins’ books because I’ve had a glance at some of the blurbs of his other books and they’re a little different from Jitterbug Perfume, they appear to be more modern and less to do with the fantastic. The themes that drew me in Jitterbug Perfume didn’t really attract me to his other books – however, I probably would read more of his books, if not for the book description, at least for Robbins’ form of highly entertaining, thought-provoking, quality writing.

P.S.: Jitterbug Perfume describes the aforementioned much-coveted perfume as possessing extract of jasmine as its key fragrance note. If this pikes your interest, check out Tom Healy’s musings on the power of the jasmine scent, along with the power of words, in particular poetry, has on modern-day politics.


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