The Smell of Old Lady Perfume by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez tells of the heartwarming relationship between Chela Gonzalez and her father. As Chela prepares for the sixth grade her father takes ill and her maternal grandmother comes to stay with the family. Chela’s father has suffered a stroke and has to make major adjustments to his lifestyle in order to recuperate. The biggest change for the family is that Mom now has to find a job to financially support the family. Having married young and never having had a job before makes this a great challenge for the entire family. Because of her father’s illness Chela is unable to start school with the rest of her classmates. Her vision of a perfect new school year is quickly thwarted when she finds herself isolated and shunned by the popular girls. Chela does not have any friends, her teacher completely forgets about her, and she cannot even tell her father about it for fear that the stress might make him ill again. Chela’s father’s health seems to improve as the novel progresses to the point where he is able to build the family a home of their own. However, upon moving into their new family home the father suffers anther stroke and passes away. The smell of old lady perfume once again returns to their home.
Claudia Guadalupe Martinez’s debut YA novel captures the turmoil of losing one’s father while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of pursuing an education. Chela’s parents are (im)migrants and throughout the novel her father makes clear that because he was unable to go to school he wants his children to take advantage of that opportunity. Chela, of course, is an exceptional student and is even in the gifted and talented students program. Education is so central to the novel that being recognized as the smartest girl in their school is the main factor for competition. The relationship between (im)migration and education is a significant theme within Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Stories like Gloria Velasquez’s Juanita Fights the School Board (1994), Luis Rodriguez’s América is Her Name (1998), and Jorge Argueta’s Moony Luna/ Luna, Lunita, Lunera (2005) capture various struggles that Latino children face in succeeding in school and the role that their parents play in helping students overcome challenges. Martinez, like the other authors mentioned, highlight the parent’s genuine desire to see their children succeed and how education is a means for many (im)migrant families to secure that success.
The Smell of Old Lady Perfume also presents an opportunity to discuss traditional gender roles within Latino families and how children are impacted by those roles. The father’s death shakes the family’s structure. In order to help the family survive, the mom gets a job which means that the older children now have to take care of the younger siblings which Chela explains that in reality they have to take care of themselves. With the father now gone, the boys in the family are told that they must now act as the heads of the family and are encouraged to not cry. A discussion on how children are impact by these gender roles may reveal ways to reconcile or challenge them.
At the end of the novel, Chela reaps the benefits of being a good student when she is recognized by the school for her hard work and her family is there to support her. Despite having lost her father Chela shows great strength and determination to succeed—something her father would have wanted. Martinez creates an honest, endearing, and innocent character through Chela Gonzalez. Her story is one of great personal loss and of the obstacles one must overcome to deal with a death in the family. Chela and her father have a beautiful relationship. Chela’s loss is one that the reader will definitely feel.
*originally posted on Goodreads.com