When we think of perfume, few of us imagine the austere tidiness of a convent with its scent of fresh ironing, scrubbed stone floors and cupboards lined with rosewood and verbena. Fewer, still, link those smells to the world’s most popular fragrance, or “the monster,” as it’s known in the industry.

Yet the origins of Chanel No. 5 derive, in part, from that unlikely source, the Catholic orphanage where Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel spent much of her childhood.

So begins Tilar Mazzeo’s evocative new book, “The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume.” Biographer and best-selling author Mazzeo, who teaches English at Colby College, sets out to untangle fact from lore in her sweeping chronicle of this storied fragrance.

In her lifetime, Coco Chanel was many things – orphan, peasant and seamstress; cabaret showgirl and demi-mondaine; fashion designer and entrepreneur. According to Mazzeo, Chanel’s life was one of contradiction and of triumph over loss. Nowhere were the stakes higher than in her perfume venture.

“Fragrance was an industry poised on the brink of a massive explosion – indeed, the 1920s and 1930s are still known as the golden age of modern perfumery – and Coco Chanel had an inkling of this,” Mazzeo writes. “… She had missed the opportunity for fabulous fragrance sales at the end of the war, when American soldiers queued for hours outside boutiques in search of French perfumes, and she was determined to make up for lost time.”

The particulars of the Chanel No. 5 legend – exactly who created what and how – and the business shenanigans that took place over many years involve endless twists and turns. A centerpiece of the story is the deal that Chanel herself brokered, wherein she signed away a 90 percent share of the perfume’s ownership and later felt duped.

There’s all manner of skullduggery, and no lack of outlandish conduct by an angry and scornful Chanel. That her signature fragrance survived the Great Depression, World War II and decades hence despite her efforts to destroy it is just one piece in a puzzle of ironies.

And this stunning fact remains: A bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold every 30 seconds.

Mazzeo’s book serves well as a primer on fragrance, navigating the complex world of fragrance “accords,” or families of scents, that are the building blocks of perfume.

At its best, the book is also an exquisite study of sense memory – an exploration of the key people and places in Coco Chanel’s life and the smells she associated with each. From the orphanage, Chanel gathered “a foundational catalog of scents,” Mazzeo says, referring to the palette of fresh, clean smells that abounded there.

From the vaudeville stage, Chanel would recall such heavy scents as jasmine and musk worn by showgirls, and the more delicate florals, such as rose and violet, that reputable women would wear. A hybrid of these fragrances, worn by a “celebrity courtesan” whom Chanel revered, came to embody her own goal in creating a perfume.

“The smell of something at once clean and sensual: that was the combination Coco Chanel admired,” Mazzeo says.

Some readers may regard this as a women’s book or a text for perfume fanciers. While it is certainly both, it is also the cultural history of an iconic product, as well as an epic tale of business and marketing.

Like the perfume itself, Mazzeo’s book is extravagant and bold, spanning the better part of a century. That the author gets swept up by her subject leads, at times, to writerly excesses.

As in life, however, Chanel No. 5 always prevails.

Joan Silverman of Kennebunk writes op-eds, essays, and book reviews for numerous publications.