Here, the art takes the form of an ancient fragrance that people are prepared to kill for.
With Rose’s skillful construction, these elements are wrapped up in a multi-period plotline that branches out from one talented family’s concerns to include the perfume studio of Cleopatra, Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, the aftereffects of the French Revolution, and the political turmoil of modern Tibet.
Most of the novel takes place in modern-day Paris, heroine Jac L’Etoile’s home city. While Jac’s brother Robbie is a dedicated Buddhist, Jac has always denied her spiritual side despite having hallucinations of unfamiliar traumatic events.
Readers will quickly recognize these for what they are: past-life memories. There's an unwritten rule that any declarations of cynicism in the start of a book must be transformed into belief by the end, and I won’t give away what happens, but Jac’s adjustment to what’s going on in her head takes a realistic path.
Jac and Robbie come from a line of celebrated Parisian perfumers, but the House of L’Etoile is in dire financial straits. Robbie’s unexpected discovery of pottery shards with hieroglyphic writing brings him into the company of Griffin North, an archaeologist with whom Jac shares a painful romantic history, and Malachai Samuels, head of the Phoenix Foundation, the famous reincarnation research institute. Although he remains a crafty schemer, Malachai presents a more subdued version of himself in this volume.
According to family legend, the shards carry a fragrance that triggers recollection of past lives, and the siblings have different ideas on how they should be handled. Desperate to obtain them as a “memory tool,” Malachai is willing to pay big bucks for them, and Jac agrees with this plan, as it will keep their company afloat. Robbie, on the other hand, believes that with the Chinese government’s crackdown on reincarnation (a stunning real-life fact), the Tibetans will find them useful for their cause.
The shards’ reappearance attracts unwanted attention from the Chinese mafia. When an unidentified body turns up chez L’Etoile, and Robbie vanishes, the plot turns into a high-stakes pursuit through the dark Parisian catacombs and their caverns of carefully stacked bones – one of many dramatic examples of death and art intertwining.
This intellectual thriller proceeds at a steady clip, but the eloquent writing and thought-provoking observations prevented me from racing along at top speed. That was all to the good, because the concepts presented are worth lingering over. Few episodes actually take place in historical times, but those that do are significant.
The concept of scent pervades the book. We learn how perfume is created from individual botanical essences, and how only the most talented of noses – like Jac’s – can separate out the strands again. Fragrance also becomes very personal, a natural result of its ability to spark recall. One of Jac’s rituals involving cologne feels a little excessive, even for a perfumer, but overall, it shows an unusual and creative approach to the world. The romantic scenes are intimate and powerful, with love, scent, and memory all linked.
With a multiplicity of characters and settings, and many scene-shifts among them, The Book of Lost Fragrances demands concentration, but it’s a fairly compact book for all the ground it covers. Although it has a slower pace than the other novels in the series I’ve read, its well-researched mélange of history, perfume, and mystery makes for a potent reading experience.
The Book of Lost Fragrances will be published by Atria at $24.00, or $27.99 in Canada, on March 13th (hardcover, 352pp). This is the 3rd day of the author's lengthy blog tour; click here to view the other stops.