Recap #2: Perfume by Caroline B. Cooney

The Perfume by Caroline B. Cooney
The Perfume by Caroline B. Cooney

Though Caroline B. Cooney did write some of my favorite Point Horrors of all time (The Cheerleader | The Return of the Vampire | The Vampire’s Promise), I’ve never read The Perfume. Since our names + evil twins come from this book, it was fitting that it would be my first recap.

Title: The Perfume by Caroline B. Cooney

Summary: Dove doesn’t want to buy the perfume. The sound of its name fills her with fear and its fragrance wraps itself around her heart. But somehow she can’t help herself. It’s almost as if something – or someone – inside her is forcing her to try it.

And when Dove puts on the perfume, she unleashes a part of herself that has been locked away all her life… the second self she never knew existed.

And it’s evil

Tagline: The sweet smell…of EVIL.

Note: I will use “Bad Guy” throughout my reviews to refer to the anonymous killer/prankster/whatever. Doesn’t mean it’s a guy. Also doesn’t mean it’s ever successful at killing/pranking/whatevering.

Memories: I have no memories of this book. However, I love the use (or abuse) of ellipses, and the heavy emphasis on evil. (Literal emphasis, I mean. There’s very little actual evil.) Because I am the evil twin.

The entire book can be recapped like this: Dove talks to | argues with | fights to take her body back from her unborn evil twin | own self | ancient Egyptian evil. For a book about a perfume that unleashes evil, there’s not a whole lot of actual evil. Or action. Or anything.

Except for weird descriptions, which I will try to catalog as we go.

The perfume was advertised once, and only once. It was enough. Venom.

Dramatic opening, considering nothing actually happens except for Dove reading an advertisement. All of this, pages and pages, for an ad.

The newspaper sprayed outward like a fan, and Dove’s hand cramped around it. Venom could be read between her fingers like rings.

I can’t picture this at all. I know what Cooney means, but the words are not wrapping around her fingers, they are nothing like rings, what is even up with this description? And it just goes downhill from here.

Good time for a roll call, though.

Dove: According to Cooney, she is our sweet, innocent, soft, gentle protagonist. According to me, she’s insufferable and boring. She wears a lot of gray, and even though I haven’t read it, I can’t help but make a 50 Shades of Gray joke. It’s not very funny. Not even when I told it to myself.

Also, prone to really annoying metaphors. For example, when she’s staring at the Venom ad, she compares seeing the ad in the newspaper to being bitten by a paper viper. First, I’m pretty sure the bite of a paper viper wouldn’t actually hurt much. Second, what the hell?

Luce: Dove’s BFF. She wears a lot of black. In a different book, this would make Luce a prime candidate for being the actual evil twin, but instead, they’re just color coordinated. Luce likes to drive on twisty back roads, and has a pea green tiny, flimsy car. I’m pretty sure this is a Bug, without actually being called a bug, and now I can’t stop saying VOLKSWAGEN OF DOOM every time Dove mentions Luce’s car.

(Metaphor of DOOM: Black makes Dove’s heart shrink as if it lost weight and no longer pumped blood. So I take it you’ve never had anatomy and physiology then, Dove.)

Connie: Dove’s other BFF, or so we are told. However, as soon as we’re introduced to Connie, Dove says she’s always full of herself and Dove doesn’t know why they’re friends. Yeah, Dove, you’re really selling yourself as the good twin here.

[Recapper Dove: I think we set the bar too high by starting with Funhouse, Tess’s best friend was awesome and nobody else will live up to Gina. These friends are standard for Point Horror.]

After spending far too many words describing the Venom advertisement (and oh god, why am I still talking about it, I have been infected!), they agree to head to the mall to check out their favorite store, and the only place Venom is sold, Dry Ice. I’m not sure why it’s their favorite store and they visit it so often considering Dove always shivers with fear when she enters, and she thinks the store was built for her, waiting for her. Which, whatever, but she does describe it like this:

When you left, your hair sparkled like morning dew and your skin felt damp and moldy.

Oh yeah, that sounds like an awesome shopping experience! Bring on the damp, moldy skin!

[Recapper Dove: Didn’t the vampire have damp, moldy skin?]

[Recapper Wing: Yes. This can either be read as an awesome opportunity for a crossover, or Cooney using the same description over and over and over again. It’s more fitting for a vampire than a popular store, too.]

(Before she gets dragged to the mall, Dove says she won’t go, and is so proud of herself for being able to refuse her best friends. Because she never has before? What the hell kind of friendship is this? Besides a super judgey one, based on Dove’s description of Connie.)

It takes forever to get to the mall, and all the while, judgey friends are judgey. Connie acts like she can’t be much bothered to waste time on Dove. Dove acts like the other two are dangerous, and strange, and strangers. I want to strangle them all. Get better friends, all of you. Be better friends.

At the mall, Dove’s descriptions really kick it up a notch:

The parking lot of the mall was jammed. To Dove, parking lots were like cemeteries. Empty spaces were white rectangles waiting for metal coffins.

Alrighty then, Dove. And you say you love the mall. I’m starting to have having some doubts about you.

Dove tells us she hates identical things, because they accuse her of some crime when she can’t distinguish between them. She hated looking at them, and she thinks she’ll spend her adult life wandering through huge parking lots, trying to remember where she left her car, what it looked like, why she came to the mall, and what her purpose in life is.

Welcome to adulthood, Dovey. At least regarding your purpose in life. Good luck with finding that.

As for the other stuff, all I can see is Dove still trying to hang with the teens when she’s fifty and it’s kinda creepy.

After some more token protests, and more asshole friendship behavior mocking her emotions, they finally reach Dry Ice, and Connie and Luce force Dove inside. Connie is the first one to try Venom, there in the store so thick with smoke they can’t see the sales clerks, and there is no way in which this is a good idea.

[Recapper Dove: I’m calling Health & Safety. This cannot be good. Don’t look at me like that, Wing, this is an evil action. Do you know how many people will be inconvenienced by Health & Safety visiting?]

[Recapper Wing: Looks more like you being a goody two shoes, as usual.]

Then Dove displays a super power!

Or more ridiculous descriptions, at least, because she can see Venom coming for her, and can taste it, and can feel it leap across the barriers of her cells and their membranes and enter her blood. She can feel it wrap around her heart.

All that from one spray of perfume, huh? Impressive.

(Three pages of recap and we’ve only just met the catalyst for this entire story. Luckily, nothing else really happens in the entire book. Good times.)

Dove explains that Venom went back before history, before civilization or time, before sanity. Of all the books I want addressing sanity and mental illness, this is one of the last. More on this later.

The Venom bottle actually does sound pretty cool, translucent glass shaped like a snake. (The Brit cover we’ve displayed here is close to how I pictured it. The US cover sucks and is inaccurate.)

All of these words and all of this time spent on getting to Venom, and it turns out it stinks. Neither Connie nor Luce like it, but Dove buys it anyway. Because Venom has come for her.

And we’re finally on to Chapter Two. Finally. All of these words, and we’ve only hit Chapter Two. Oh god, I need a drink.

Dove lives in a development full of condominiums which are gray and white, and the sky is gray, and after that earlier description of Dove and her soft grays, you’d think she’d be happy here, but suddenly, she’s no longer happy being the girl of gray. She wants to be vibrant colors, wants a more vibrant self to emerge with her sixteenth birthday, and oh god, I can only hope it happens soon and saves me from this boredom.

In addition to thinking her friends look like strangers, she’s now doing things like forgetting where she lives, and talking out loud to herself, and thinking she has a double heartbeat and footsteps in her head.

Now’s a good enough a time as any to discuss something often missing from Point Horror: parents.

Dove’s parents aren’t flitting off to Europe, as the parents so often do in Point Horror, but they’re not really around, either. They have long commutes, and work late, and lock themselves in their room with the door closed, and everyone is quiet and still and gray in Dove’s home.

Since they pretty much suck when they do talk to Dove, I can’t help but see their silence as an improvement.

Examples of Parental Suckitude!

(1) Dove went to day camp as a kid, and on the way, the bus passed a cemetery. The other kids would hold their breath because it’s bad luck to breathe when you go past dead people. (I’ve read this somewhere else, too; maybe the Pike family did it in The Baby-Sitters Club? I often hold my breath when driving across water, especially driving west across the Mississippi River, so I can have only fresh, west-of-the-Mississippi air when I’m done.)

Dove can’t hold her breath long enough, and it scares her, and when she anxiously asks her mom what will happen to her, her mom is cross and calls her a dumbo, and says the superstition is nonsense. How freaking comforting.

(2) Dove feels like she knows nothing about her parents, that their lives are only surface lives. That they do not think of themselves as her parents, but only as themselves. This is actually quite sad; poor Dove, all alone in this home of gray and steel.

(3) When Dove (who is freaked out because she thinks she may have a second person inside her, remember) asks for a story about herself as a child, or about her parents’ lives before her, they tell her the story of how they thought they were having two kids. Dove has heard this story before, because she admits she carries the weight of having disappointed them before she was even born, and oh my god, what is wrong with you people?

And the names! I know names in Point Horror are often strange, and sometimes meaningful, but oh, the names:

“One daughter would be Dove,” said her father. “Soft and gentle and cooing with affection.” He surprised Dove by resting his hand on hers, and for a moment the vapors lifted and she was safe and dry.

“The other would have been Wing,” added her mother. “Beating free and flying strong.”

A Dove was whole. A complete bird, a complete child. Whereas a Wing – that was just a portion. A limb, so to speak, wrenched off, and lost forever.

How could they have done that? thought Dove. How could they have chosen such a set of names?

For how could a Wing be born alone? Fly free and be strong! Quite the opposite. Without its identical match, a Wing was nothing.

No wonder it wasn’t born, thought Dove, how could it be?

Dove decides that the weird flutter in her brain and double heartbeat means Wing has been growing inside her, “incubating like a disease.” She’s worried that Wing will be mad at being stuck inside of her for so long, she’s worried about what will happen when Wing forces her way out, and I brace myself to spend the rest of the story dealing with how mental illness is handled in this book.

At one point, Dove asks one of her teachers what would happen if she really had a second person inside her, and we get this exchange:

“What if you really did have a second person inside you?” said Dove.

“If you really did have a second person inside of you,” said the teacher, “you would receive a mental diagnosis. Schizophrenia, perhaps. You would be on heavy-duty, industrial-strength medication, and very probably live out your unfortunate years in the state institution to which Timmy hopes to send Laurence.”

The class laughed.

“Oh,” said Dove. She decided against describing what was going on inside her skull. The world did not sound sympathetic.

Yeah, no shit, Dove. The world is not sympathetic. And fuck you, teacher, fuck you, book. A) Medication doesn’t mean you have to live your life in an institution. B) Mental illness, including schizophrenia, doesn’t mean that, and it doesn’t mean your life is unfortunate. C) FUCK YOU.

It is at this point that I am done with this damn book. In case that wasn’t clear.

To make the rest of this recap as short and quick as possible: when Wing finally “emerges,” she takes over Dove’s body. The first thing she does is run leaping around the condo and talking to the bottle of perfume. So far, Wing is as bad as Dove.

(Wing does tell Dove she has nothing interesting to say, and I agree with that based on the book so far. Unfortunately, Wing doesn’t do much of interest, either.)

“Just venom,” said Wing sweetly. “Just poison. Some of us are created evil. The maternal body tries not to birth evil, and usually succeeds.” Wing smiled joyfully. “But not always.”

Dove tried to hide in the back of the mind. But there was no escape from Wing’s venom. It found her out, and hauled her forward, cowering and whimpering, and laughed at her.

“My turn,” whispered Wing. “Just wait, little Dove. Just wait and see what I do to your life.”

Wing caressed the bottle of Venom.

Wing spends a lot of time claiming to be evil, and Dove spends a lot of time telling us that Wing is evil. If anything, Wing is failed evil, because this is all she manages:

  • FAIL. She speaks in a different voice than Dove uses; Dove’s voice is high as a flute, Wing’s voice is middling and rounded. That doesn’t actually sound like much of a contrast; flutes can make middling tones, too.
  • FAIL. She “befriends” mean girl Hesta. Dove tells us that Hesta loves to tell people they look tired or run down or upset or whatever, and that’s why Dove doesn’t like her. She basically sounds just like Dove and her BFFs, judgmental and slightly cruel, so I’m not sure why she’s not one of the girls, but whatever.
  • FAIL. She suggests they study the history of snakes in ancient history class, and glares at people when they don’t take her seriously. Dangerous glare on that one – oh wait, no. She then makes Mr Phinney, the ancient history teacher, smell Venom, because she’s sure she’ll make his “evil” twin emerge. It doesn’t work.
  • FAIL. She yells at their mother to pay attention to her, and proceeds to get ignored just like Dove. (So a failure of evil there, and also, someone needs to yell at those parents for the way they treat their daughter(s).)
  • WIN. She kicks walls. Dove is shocked by this, because Dove has never considered kicking walls before. Dove, you seriously need to live a little. I guess this counts as a win, though, because she does manage to upset Dove.
  • FAIL. She refuses to brush their teeth before going to school. She goes to school, she doesn’t skip, she just refuses to brush her teeth before going. What a badass.
  • WIN. She makes the other students think they’re creepy because of the way they talk to each other in their two separate voices. Of course, this isn’t actually intentional, she’s just talking to | ranting at Dove, but I suppose I should count this as one of the few things she does successfully.
  • FAIL. Wing starts hitting herself in the head to get rid of Dove, who picks it up on the rare times when she’s in control of the body, and hits herself to get rid of Wing. It doesn’t work for either of them. Double fail.
  • FAIL FAIL TOTAL FAIL. She goes on a date with Timmy, the boy Dove likes, and threatens to throw him out of the hot air balloon they’re riding in, because she wants to add action to Dove’s life. (Me too, Wing, me too.) Of course, she fails, because as soon as she pushes him, they smell flowers or nature or some shit, and Dove is back in control, clinging to him instead. He does become scared, but Wing promised Dove (and us) a body falling out of a hot air balloon and instead we get Timmy looking at Dove with fear. No dice.
  • FAIL. She plays and shrieks and yells things in the fountain at the center of the mall, the one right under the skylight, the one from where the mall looks like a giant pyramid. On the one hand, she’s not intending to scare people. On the other hand, she totally manages to almost get thrown out of the mall. Never mind, on both hands, it’s still a fail.
  • FAIL FAIL TOTAL FAIL YET AGAIN. While Hesta just happens to be racing a car that Timmy’s riding in (super convenient, huh?), Wing decides to punish Hesta for laughing at her, and tells Dove she’s going to wreck them. Of course, even though she’s in control of the body, she spends way, way too much time arguing with Dove, out loud, where Hesta can hear what she’s planning on doing, and Hesta turns into a parking lot before Wing can even try to grab the wheel. SO MUCH FAIL.

Why is nothing happening in this story? Even when we’re told something might happen, it always ends with Wing and Dove talking at each other, and nothing actually being done. For a book in a series called Point Horror, there is absolutely zero horror to this story.

Well, except for the shitty, shitty commentary on mental illness. Dove does end up in the hospital, and of course spends the entire time talking about how she’s not really crazy, how horrible it is there, how horrible the real crazy people are, etc. FUCK. YOU. No wonder people have such a hard time pursuing treatment for mental illness, with this sort of crap out in the world adding to the stigma of mental illness.

[Recapper Dove: So, basically, Wing’s Top 5 Evil Moments are: talking, dancing, jostling and talking twice more?]

[Recapper Wing: The Top 5 Moments of this book — “top” being a stretch — include talking, because that is basically the only thing anyone does. And mostly it is Wing and Dove in the same body talking to themselves | each other | the strange evil inhabiting Dove’s body | what is wrong with this book?]

(As we keep running into with Point Horror, there’s a weird little moment of pseudo-incest:

There was a single cotton blanket. White. White for purity, although nothing in Dove’s world was pure now.

Just sounds wrong.)

Because of insurance, Dove only spends a week at the hospital (though it feels like much, much, much longer – to me, the reader, I am so bored and infuriated and bored by this book). Back at school, everyone avoids her, and this could be a really good commentary on how people treat what scares them, and how we turn away from people with mental illness, but no, it’s neither of those things.

For some reason, Hesta still wants to hang out with Dove | Wing, and they go to the mall. Because that’s clearly the only place to hang out in their town. Dove ends up in the fountain, dancing out evil, and this is pretty much the exact same scene we already had when Wing was in the fountain, except this time, Dove manages to force Wing out. Or so she tells us.

No matter what, Wing is gone, and we’re left with Dove. Dove who says she might as well have killed herself than acted the way she did, because now people think she’s crazy and they’ll abandon her. Because yes, it’s so much better to be dead than to have a mental illness.

(Sing along if you know the words: FUCK YOU!)

The school year ends, and Dove tells us her friendships ended with it, except she has a (weird and perhaps slightly inappropriate) friendship with her ancient history teacher, who apparently believes her when it comes to the ancient evil that might or might not have manifested itself as or with her unborn twin, and Luce rekindles their friendship right at the end of the book so – Dove is a straight up liar, she got rid of the BFF she started out basically disliking, and nothing has really changed.

All this time, all this anger, and we’re right back where we were at the beginning.

Final Thoughts

Pointless, evil-less, boring book, that still manages to be infuriating because of the statements it makes about mental illness, and the violence of people with mental illness, and how life isn’t worth living if you have a mental illness. As someone who has a couple mental illnesses, I am beyond pissed.

So instead, I’m wrapping this up with a quick recap of some metaphor abuse, for Venom and for Wing, technically the bad guys of this book.

Metaphor abuse!

Venom is

… the bite of tiny teeth.

… a cell dividing.

… a wasp stinging.

… primitive and dark, older than civilization and time, older than sanity.

… dry ice, terrible and burning.

… a scent as old as the pyramids, as dark and unforgiving as the death of kings.

Wing is

… nice without the n – ice.

… a laugh of broken cubes, spilling from a tipped glass.

… a viper.

… half gypsy, half witch, totally different.

… evil, evil, evil, we’re told a hundred times evil, but she never manages to do anything.

Next up, Dove will be tackling Trick or Treat, and I am moving on to one of my favorites, Camp Fear.