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Book review of “Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Staff Writer

Image via Pixabay/Pexels

Long ago, during the Qin Dynasty of Ancient China, the emperor Qin Shi Huang dedicated his entire life to the achievement of one unbelievable goal. This man, you see, wanted to become immortal. He even drank mercury constantly, believing it to be an “elixir of life.” This sadly, led to his ultimate demise. But was his desire for eternal life really so unbelievable in the end? We often think we have all the time in the world to live our lives, only for countless years to pass by fleetingly in an instant, like solid quicksilver melting away as soon as it is grasped. Tom Robbins’ “Jitterbug Perfume” is a fervent festival of a novel, one that reminds us to live every day like it is our last.


“Jitterbug Perfume” is a sweet sensuous tale that blends two narratives, one of the past and one of the present, into a magnificent carnal concoction. The first tale begins with an eighth century king named Alobar, who after being exiled from his domain sets out on a world-spanning trek, hoping to find in the process the secret to remaining forever youthful.


Another curious adventure blossoms into existence in the present day. An aspiring perfume maker named Priscilla is left dumbfounded as an eccentric unknown figure repeatedly leaves beets on her doorstep. In New Orleans, the incense shop owner Madame Devalier also receives some of these luscious red vegetables. It just so happens that Devalier’s main rivals, Claude and Marcel, the heads of the Parisian company “LeFever Parfumarie,” are also finding themselves with more beta vulgaris presents than they know what to do with. Weird. Heh, maybe everyone should get together and stir up a gigantic pot of mouth-watering borscht. Now that would be one heck of a sumptuous communal supper.


This comical, absurd story carries with it notes of poignant melancholy. It speaks to one of the most prevalent fears of mankind. Deep down, everyone is afraid of the day that they will wither, pass away and fade quickly from the memories of their friends and loved ones. We will often go to great lengths to ensure that we will be remembered for years. If we don’t have a grand achievement to call our own, what was the point of our time spent on this planet? Making a huge difference is crucial to living a satisfactory life – or so we’ve been led to believe.


“Jitterbug Perfume” rebels against this notion, suggesting that it is completely false. Yes, it is delightful to want to make a difference in the world, but if you spend too much time worrying about how people will see you in the future, you forget to indulge in the pleasures of the present day. Focus on what can be achieved here and now instead of dwelling on possibly terrible things that might happen in the future. Otherwise, you’ll fall into a well of depression and misery that will be very difficult to escape from.


The book also deals with the human aversion to death and dying and how we must accept that our time will run out eventually. Let us cherish what time we have left instead of frantically wasting said time trying in vain to fight off the inevitable. Nothing lasts forever and that’s okay. I don’t think we’d ever be able to cherish life so earnestly if it didn’t have to end eventually. Life and death in that sense are just two ingredients in the alluring perfume that is the human experience. They go together hand-in-hand.


Robbins’ writing style is equal parts surreal and grounded. He is a master of magic realism, crafting a world that exists in that strange territory between the realistic and the fantastic. In this, Robbins joins other great authors who have written in this genre like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka. I highly recommend “Jitterbug Perfume.” It's a book that might just improve your life.


Just think: such an uproarious story began with the humble beet.


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