Perfume in Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”

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I’m currently rereading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (in order to fix it in my mind before the movie adaptation is released next month), and I just stopped to savor this sentence.

The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Theodore Decker, is learning about furniture restoration from a passionate expert in his workshop:

“After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, [Hobie] taught me the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents — ‘sometimes, when you’re not sure what you have, it’s easiest just to take a sniff’ — spicy mahogany, dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood.”

Donna Tartt is a secret (or not-so-secret?) scent-obsessive…

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I’ve known this since an afternoon in 2010 when I met her, very unexpectedly, at a perfume counter in one of New York’s department stores. We actually ended up chatting about fragrance for a few minutes and she showed me some samples she had in her handbag. I’m still hoping to run into her again someday.

Further evidence: in 2014 Tartt told Vanity Fair that her favorite perfume was La Via del Profumo’s Hindu Kush. She’s obviously not an amateur.

I’ve been keeping note of references to scents worn by female characters in The Goldfinch, some of them identified as specific perfumes and others unidentified. Where they’re not named, I’ve tried to guess what they could be.

L’Artisan Parfumeur Santal Eau de Toilette

Audrey Decker is Theo Decker’s chic and beautiful mother. She’s an Oklahoma native who moved to New York to model and attend college, and she’s a serious art-lover. In the book’s opening chapter, she brings her son to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There they see a special exhibition of Dutch 17th-century paintings and Theo’s life is irrevocably changed…and not just by the art.

“I loved the sandalwood perfume she wore, rough and unexpected, and I loved the rustle of her starched shirt when she swooped down to kiss me on the forehead.”

L’Artisan Parfumeur Santal (1978; now discontinued) seems like something that Audrey would wear. It has a classic-meets-contemporary flair that suits a woman who dresses in Belgian Shoes and a bright green peacoat.

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Diptyque Tam Dao Eau de Toilette

Or maybe she’s a Diptyque customer? I think she would appreciate this brand’s label designs and visual presentation. (I’m also choosing something a woman living on the Manhattan’s East Side would be able to buy in the early-2000s context of this story.)

I can imagine Theo’s mom leaving a trail of Diptyque Tam Dao (2003) in her wake, and it does have the “rough” quality that Tartt describes.

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Diptyque Feu de Bois Candle

The apartment Theo shares with his recently divorced mother at 57th Street and Sutton Place has its own smell:

“…the fierce smell of home: books and old rugs and lemon floor cleaner, the dark myrrh-smelling candles she bought at Barney’s.” 

(Barneys doesn’t have an apostrophe. Whoops, no one caught that…)

I’m trying to think of dark-colored candles available in the “apothecary” section of the  Barneys beauty floor. Diptyque’s Feu de Bois candle is light-brownish. However, its scent is more smoky-woody than incensey.

Unless she means that the myrrh smells dark…?

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Rituals Precious Amber candle is another possibility, although I’m not sure whether it was being sold at Barneys circa 2008, when the action of The Goldfinch begins.

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Houbigant Quelques Fleurs Eau de Parfum

Just slightly further uptown, we get to know Samantha Barbour, the matriarch of the family that welcomes Theo into its Park Avenue apartment when he finds himself alone under tragic circumstances.

When Mrs. Barbour says good-bye to Theo in one scene, she gives him an air-kiss redolent of “mint and gardenias.” Just like her, these mingled aromas are cool and precise.

More than a decade later, Theo returns to the Barbour home and as he approaches Mrs. Barbour’s room he’s struck by “the smell of her perfume — unmistakable, white blossoms with a powdery strangeness at the heart — was like a blown curtain over an open window.”

Tartt doesn’t name Mrs. Barbour’s fragrance, but this description makes me think of Houbigant Quelques Fleurs (1912), a very traditional feminine perfume with a loyal following. And she could easily purchase it at Bergdorf Goodman whenever she needs a new bottle.

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Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps in its legendary Lalique bottle design

Mrs. Barbour might also be a longtime fan of Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps (1948), a romantic white floral perfume with a slight bitterness lurking beneath its soft-focus cascade of petals.

The Lalique bottle would also appeal to her collector’s eye.

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Chanel No. 19 Parfum

Katherine “Kitsey” Barbour, the third-youngest of the four Barbour children, is platinum-blond and dresses in “tiny linen shift dresses,” her grandmother’s vintage (Hermès?) crocodile handbags and sparkly Louboutins.

Donna Tartt identfies Kitsey’s perfume precisely and even pairs it with an outfit in one scene: Chanel No. 19, baby blue dress.”

That feels just right for Kitsey. Chanel No. 19 (1971) is expensive, it’s classic but more unexpected than big sister No. 5, it’s radiant but a little sharp-edged.

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Assorted Neal’s Yard Remedy Products

Then there’s Pippa, raised by relatives in the apartment behind an antique shop in Greenwich Village. She’s a pale, quirky-looking redhead clad in layers of woolly sweaters and scarves, emotionally and physically damaged by the same crisis that strikes Theo.

Theo muses on the secret magic that the possessions in Pippa’s bedroom hold for him:

“Everything about her was a snowstorm of fascination, from the antique valentines and embroidered Chinese coats she collected to her tiny scented bottles from Neal’s Yard Remedies…”

It’s hard to guess (and Theo himself may not even know) whether those bottles hold perfumes or skincare or bath oils. I can imagine Pippa using Neal’s Yard products scented with Geranium & Orange or Frankincense & Mandarin. Neal’s Yard currently offers a “Pure Essence” Eau de Parfum called Frankincense No. 1, which also feels like a good fit.

If Pippa does give off an aura of woods and incense, she could subliminally remind Theo of his mother and his home.

“a strong smell of Juicy Fruit”

There’s one more supporting female character in this novel: Xandra Terrell, Theo’s father’s girlfriend. She’s the only one not granted a perfume. Otherwise, she’s delineated in merciless detail, from her French tips to her toe tattoo to her white crocheted bikini.

However, Xandra’s only scent is the aroma of the Juicy Fruit gum that she chews, plus hints of her favorite flavor in all its forms: “Vanilla Coke, vanilla Chapstick, vanilla diet drink, Stoli Vanilla.”

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Since I ended up feeling sorry for Xandra, I’ll assign her a perfume on my own. She loves to shop at Juicy Couture, so she’d probably enjoy wearing one of their fragrances for nights out in Vegas. Viva La Juicy (2008) seems appropriate. (Get it? “Viva Las Vegas”? Also, it’s very fruity-sweet, which seems to be Xandra’s taste.)

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The author and her work

If I come across any further perfume references in this novel, I’ll update this post. I love realizing that a favorite author is also a fellow aromaphile who takes beautiful scents seriously.

As one character in The Goldfinch muses, “…isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?”


  1. I finally read The Goldfinch (finished it last Monday during the holiday), and I’d saved this post to come back to after I’d read the book. You captured the major scent/perfume references well. I’d also put 10 Corso Como in the running for Theo’s mom’s perfume. I immediately thought of that and Tam Dao when I was reading that part. I was also intrigued by the “dark myrrh-smelling candle.” I want that candle myself!

    Spot on also for Mrs. Barbour’s perfume choices. And I love that Tartt chose No. 19 for Kitsey. Perfect for a rich woman who never lets her true emotions show.

    And I think we can agree Boris smells like stale cigarettes and vodka…


    • Oh, 10CC is a good one!!

      The Barbours became very real to me…then again, I’ve spent waaaay too much time on the Upper East Side over the years. :/

      Boris! As an adult, definitely stale cigarettes and vodka, maybe something from Creed…? and in his youth, probably the cigarettes and booze as well, plus unwashed hair…


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