October 22, 2013

[Book Review] The Perfume by Caroline B. Cooney


Venom.

Dove doesn't want to buy the perfume. She doesn't like its scent. And its name frightens her.

But somehow she can't help herself. It's almost as if something--or someone--inside her is forcing her to try it.

Dove was always a nice person, a sweet and gentle girl on whom friends could rely.

Until now.

Because when Dove puts on the perfume, she unleashes a part of herself that has been locked away all her life.

It is a second life she never knew existed.

And it is Evil.



Yesterday I explained my dislike for DID (aka multiple personality) plot twists. Today, I have an example of a book that does DID right.

The blurb for The Perfume is a bit misleading. From the way it's written, it implies that the plot of the book is a young woman who embraces her "dark" side--i.e., becomes less conformist, more sexually aggressive, and the like--to the point of frightening herself with how many boundaries she's suddenly breaking

The Perfume is not about that a girl like that. The Perfume is about Dove, a girl who from the very first chapter proves to be in the middle of an identity crisis and on the verse of mentally unraveling. And it's no surprise, given the way Dove's friends and family treat her and the difficulty she has with reconciling her childish fears and innocent style with her desire to grow up. She is terrified of the name of a perfume ("Venom") and a clothing store that she imagines is taunting her. She suffers from vaguely OCD symptoms and extremely macabre thinking. See, for example, the following passages:
Dove could not bear things that matched. Identical objects seemed to accuse her of some crime, because she could not distinguish between them.
And...
I'm the same color as the sky and buildings, though Dove. I might vaporize even as we stand here, diffuse like the perfume into all that gray.
And...
Spring had collapsed; had let winter pierce it like a balloon. There was no safety in spring. Spring could double back into winter and vanish without giving notice. I hate seasons, though Dove. You cannot trust a season.
And...
The raisins stared at her like eyes.
She put a spoonful to her mouth and thought, If I eat this, my stomach will be full of eyes.
She went to school hungry.
So it's more than a little obvious that Dove's going to end up having a breakdown before the book is over. This breakdown, however, comes very quickly; by page ten, after Dove feels compelled to buy the titular perfume, we have this:
She could not tell [her friends] apart anymore. Nor remember their names.

The store gloated. We knew we could get you, said the store. Didn't we tell you it was only a matter of time?

Dove felt that her life has been a prelude to this moment.

Had never counted until this breath of perfume.

Venom.

Whose venom? though Dove. What bit me?

And she knew that tonight, at last, there would be something under the bed.
From here on out, we have an impressively authentic portrayal of a teenager sinking into what is likely either schizophrenia or Dissociative Identity Disorder. By page fourteen, she believes she's hearing a second heart beating in her chest. By page twenty-four, she's decided to keep quiet about her symptoms lest she be committed. By page twenty-five, she's learned that she was part of a vanishing twin syndrome pregnancy, and it's this revelation that she fixates on.

Throughout the rest of the book, it's fascinating to watch as Dove assigns significance to various things in her environment (the Venom becomes the trigger that "unleashes" her evil vanished twin, Wing; when Timmy blows her a kiss, it allows Dove herself to "regain control"; when Dove smells a specific scent, she's able to overpower Wing, etcetera.) and as the people in Dove's life slowly come to terms with the fact that she's sick.

Now, I feel that the first half of the book did a much better job than the second; in the first, most of the narrative was spent on establishing Dove's disorder and building tension. The second half, unfortunately, spent a lot of time trying to build a "Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane" atmosphere so that readers could ultimately decide whether Dove was truly sick or simply the victim of a genuine, inhuman "vanished evil twin". Me, I'm not fond of the inclusion of that trope in a book about DID... but I understand why it was included.

What amused me the most about The Perfume was the way Cooney used the Ancient History teacher to hint at the reality of Dove's sickness; it's he that first mentions schizophrenia when she alludes to her symptoms, and I was infinitely amused to find that right around the time I was beginning to suspect Dove might be afflicted by a brain tumor, he mentions the ancient Egyptians attempting to operate on brain tumors. (Wing and Venom's connection to ancient Egypt is a theme throughout the book.) Frankly, I would have preferred Cooney to ditch the mystical mumbo-jumbo and focus on the medical diagnosis.

Instead, the second half of the book was rather rushed; not enough time is spent on each plot development, and things are resolved too quickly and too easily. So I'll admit that the second half of the book was a bit of a letdown after the first. Still, it's an interesting book that does a reasonably good job presenting authentic symptoms of mental illness (especially given its age), and it's worth a read if you can get your hands on a copy.



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