I am not usually asked what my favorite perfume book is. I do know my answer is one few of my infrequent interrogators expects; Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins.
Jitterbug Perfume was the fourth novel released by Mr. Robbins. By its release in 1984 Mr. Robbins had staked out a reputation as a literary cult author. His most famous book is “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” which is how I first discovered him. Mr. Robbins has a style of writing a tale in multiple layers covering different timeframes and almost always a bit of the fantastical. In between those threads are many laugh out loud moments. I’ve always categorized Mr. Robbins as a writer whom it is best to read over a few days and not in small bits before bed or on the commute. To fully enjoy his writing I think you have to ride the wave of prose until it carries you to the shore. Fortunately, his books are written in such a way that they propel you to wanting to know the answer to the questions of the narrative which keeps you turning pages. There is also some odd focal point which ends up tying many of the protagonists together. In Jitterbug Perfume it is beets.
The first sentence of Jitterbug Perfume informs us, “The beet is the most intense of vegetables.” After a few paragraphs supporting that thesis Mr. Robbins closes the first chapter with, “A tale that begins with a beet will end with the devil. That is a risk we will have to take.” From there a beet is delivered to three protagonists living in the modern-day Seattle, New Orleans, and Paris. All of them are working on making a modern version of Jitterbug Perfume. As the story progresses we learn they are connected by more than the beet they received. Interspersed between their story are chapters of King Alobar and his paramour Kudra. Their story tells of the reason for and the creation of Jitterbug Perfume.
When I read it for the first time in 1984 my knowledge of perfume was at an early stage. When reading it twenty years later discussions of Jamaican jasmine and synthetic replacements of the natural ingredients resonated more. The plot drives towards the moment the new Jitterbug Perfume will be revealed while Alobar and Kudra supply the historical foundation.
If you have not discovered Mr. Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume is a great place to start. I consider him to be one of the great American writers. His books are a good choice for vacation reading where you can dive in and spend uninterrupted time with them. Just be ready to have people look at you when you laugh out loud; and ask for beets in your salad.