The Perfumist of Paris, the final book in the Jaipur trilogy by author Alka Joshi, takes us to Paris where perfumer Radha has been given the commission to create her first perfume all while dealing with the demands of her husband who believes she should be spending more time at home with her two daughters. Unknown to her family in Paris, Radha has a secret of her own that she’s been keeping since she left India.
When she returns to her home country to research the ingredients she needs to complete her perfume, old memories, and past wounds begin to resurface and her past and her past can no longer remain hidden.
Get an inside look into the novel before you dive into the sights and aromas of Paris and Agra in this Q&A with author Alka Joshi.
The Perfumist of Paris is the final book in the Jaipur Trilogy. As you were planning out the storyline for the final book, what were some of your primary sources of inspiration?
Perfume, fragrance, and scent—those were my primary sources of inspiration. What does it mean to resurrect memories through scent? The third character in the Jaipur Trilogy, Radha, was born and raised in India. As such, she has an inherent knowledge of turmeric and cumin, coconut and sandalwood, with cardamom and cinnamon. She has lived and breathed scents her entire life, so choosing to work in the perfume industry was a perfect fit. She is able to discern the scent preferences of every client because each person carries memories specific to them. Radha carries her own memories of a baby she gave away when she was fourteen. As hard as she has tried, she has been unable to bury those memories. How will perfume be both the making and unraveling of her?
What drew you to the particular time period of the 1970s?
In the first book of the trilogy, The Henna Artist, Radha was 13 years old. I wanted her to have had a chance to become a wife (at 18) and mother (at 23) before starting her career. I wanted her to have made headway in her quest toward becoming a master perfumer, so that placed her in her early 30s, and it placed the story in the early 1970s. My first trip to Paris was in 1974 with my parents, and I remembered it well—the museums, the paintings, the desire to return. That’s why it made sense to set the story in 1974. Coincidentally, it was a seminal moment in the history of women’s empowerment in France with women fighting for and gaining rights that had heretofore been denied them. That’s always a central theme in my novels.
Tell me about the research process for the book.
I wanted to immerse myself in the process of how perfume is made because I knew nothing about it. The producer of The Henna Artist episodic series introduced me to his friend in New York City who was a powerhouse in the fragrance industry. When I went to meet her, she took me to a fragrance lab and introduced me to several Master Perfumers, who recommended I also talk to Master Perfumers in Paris. So I flew to Paris. The Parisian perfumers recommended I also go to Grasse in southeastern France where perfume is compounded and bottled. So I went to Grasse. Finally, I flew to Lisbon to interview a young Indian perfumer as well as a seasoned perfume expert from one of the oldest fragrance families. Everyone I encountered was extremely gracious and generous with their time and their knowledge and shared fascinating anecdotes, all of which made their way into the story.
I made an exciting discovery along the way: many ingredients used to design almost any kind of fragrance (whether it’s for home, body, bath) originally came from the Indian Subcontinent. For centuries, traders from France, Germany, England, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Spain traveled through the Subcontinent to buy raw ingredients like sandalwood, cloves, cinnamon, jasmine, and tuberose and sold them to fragrance houses in Europe. As with the other two books in the Jaipur Trilogy, this discovery presented an opportunity for me to tout India’s contribution to the beauty and comfort of our lives today.
In what ways is Radha similar to you and in what ways is she different?
Radha is ambitious, as am I. She is hungry to learn as much as she can, as am I. Like her, I enjoy immersing myself in my subject matter. I’ve experienced betrayal and prejudice at work, as Radha has. Unlike Radha, I have a husband who has always supported my creative journey. Without his encouragement and persistence, I would never have become a writer. Radha is a mother; I am not. Yet, I have enough friends and enough empathy to imagine myself in Radha’s shoes, experiencing what she’s feeling, torn between her love of family and a need to realize her creative spirit.
Which of the scenes from the book did you enjoy writing the most?
I loved the courtesans of Agra and their madams Hazi and Nasreen from The Henna Artist. It was at their kotha that Lakshmi learned how to create such unique henna designs. So when Radha needed to find the right ingredient for the scent she was designing, I knew the courtesans could help her too. The courtesan scenes were a pleasure to write. In my research, I’d learned so much about these dynamic, brave, fascinating women of pleasure. And I loved reprising the fragrances, cuisine, and cultural traditions of my birth nation. Another scene I enjoyed writing—and revising over and over—because I wanted to get it right was the meeting where Radha tells her firstborn son, whom she adopted out when he was just four months old, that she’s his birth mother. It was a powerful scene and one that will stay with me forever.
What emotions did you feel after finishing the final chapter of the book?
The protagonists of the entire Jaipur Trilogy—Radha, Lakshmi, and Malik—as well as all the other characters feel as real to me as my own family. When I’m not with them, I think about them and what they might be doing, feeling, thinking. In the final chapter of The Perfumist of Paris, as with the two other novels, I tried to impart how important it is for women to be able to determine their own destinies and for that right never to be taken away from them. It makes me feel as if I’ve paid forward the independence, courage, and strength my mother passed onto me. I’m so grateful to her.
You partnered with LilaNur Parfums to create a discovery set, featuring seven eau de parfums, to coincide with the release of the book. What was it like working with the brand?
What a smooth and lovely experience it was. Paul Austin, co-founder of LilaNur Parfums, had been extremely helpful to me in my perfume research. When I’d finished the last chapter of The Perfumist of Paris, I asked him if he would like to collaborate. We didn’t know at the time what that would look like, but the end result was amazing! So many readers were thrilled to try the Discovery Set of seven LilaNur scents along with the novel. The scents, which are based on ingredients only harvested in India and which provide year-round employment to Indians, dovetailed beautifully with the messages in the novel. LilaNur publicized the collaboration in the media, and I publicized it on my book tour for The Perfumist of Paris. Paul and his staff were genuinely delightful and so easy to work with!
The first book in the trilogy, The Henna Artist is being turned into a series on Netflix. How involved were you in writing the scripts for the series?
My involvement in the Netflix series is to appreciate the hard work of crafting a gorgeous novel adaptation and cheering the producers on. I know the story is in good hands, and I can’t wait for my readers to see it and for everyone to fall in love with Lakshmi.
When did you find out that Freida Pinto would be starting in the main role of the series?
Freida Pinto, Mirmax TV, and Michael Edelstein partnered together to secure the option for The Henna Artist. When they told me they could see the episodic series as an “Indian Downton Abbey,” I knew they were the right group to take the novel forward and that Freida was the right actress to play Lakshmi.
Are you currently working on your next novel, and if so, can we get a sneak peek?
My fourth novel focuses on a real-life painter, the Indian Freida Kahlo, who dies mysteriously in an Indian hospital. The nurse in charge of her care loses her job and journeys to Prague, Paris, Florence, and London in search of what might have led to the painter’s death. The story takes place in 1937, between the two world wars—a fascinating time in global history. I’m having so much fun with the research, which, alas, traveling to those countries—such a chore, but someone’s got to do it 😊
— About the Author —
Born in India and raised in the U.S. since she was nine, Alka Joshi has a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from California College of Arts. Joshi’s debut novel, The Henna Artist, immediately became a NYT bestseller, a Reese Witherspoon Bookclub pick, was Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and is in development as a TV series.
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