Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book review: The Book of Lost Fragrances, by M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose’s time-slip thrillers always pull me into fascinating corners of the world, and of history, where I never knew I wanted to travel. The Book of Lost Fragrances, the fourth entry in an ongoing series, can stand on its own without problems, but longtime readers will recognize one recurring character and several themes: the uncovering of past lives, soul mates’ connections through time, and the transformative power of art.

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.


  1. Wonderful review! I have already read this one and I really enjoyed it too. I have not read any other books by this author yet, I am looking forward to reading another soon.

  2. Thank you so very very much for all the wonderful things you've said about my book! I really appreciate your thoughtfulness.

  3. Fantastic review, Sarah. I'm down to the final few pages of the novel and agree that it's a great read.

  4. Sounds like a book to captivate. Do you think historical fiction that educates in some way - in this case, the world of perfume - is more compelling to readers?

  5. Hi Anne, pleased you liked it, and I saw you're also on the tour - I'll look for your review later! This is the 3rd I've read in the series (after The Reincarnationist and The Memorist), and I recently bought the next-to-last one (The Hypnotist). I'm a fan of reincarnation thrillers and find it interesting to see the different forms they take, from the tragic overtones of Anya Seton's Green Darkness (which is lengthy and somewhat dense) to the fast-paced intrigue of this series.

    Thanks for stopping by, MJ, and you're very welcome! I hope it does well.

    Hi Melissa, I have to say that I appreciated the ending (well, both endings, really). Others may or may not agree, but it worked for me.

    Mary, there may be something to that, if the new information is presented in the right way. As another example, Paris appears in many, many novels (the novel I read after this one also takes place there) but the book shows a side to the city that tourists don't often see. I've been there several times but hadn't heard about the catacombs... and I'm always up for visiting new places, if only virtually.

  6. Nice review -- I'm excited for this one. I love the unique set up of this series, and while I found the Muslims-as-criminals problematic in The Hypnotist, I otherwise enjoyed it. Being a perfume nut, I'm very keen on this one!

  7. This book seems to be getting lots of positive reviews. I really need to read this author one of these days.

  8. I was a little confused about how this book connected to her books like The Memorist and The Hypnotist. Once I read that there is a connection, I will definitely read it. It's the completist in me! Can't help but complete series that I have started.

  9. Hi Audra, you have me curious about The Hypnotist - I'd have to see how that aspect was handled.

    Kailana, the reviews on this one have started early! I've been avoiding the longer ones since I didn't want anything to influence me, but I'll go back and take a look.

    Marg, as far as I can tell, Malachai is the character common to all four of them. He's still struggling to get his hands on a memory tool. He got himself in so much trouble in past books that he's lying low in this one!

  10. Sounds like an interesting book. I have a question: I heard from an author friend that time slip histfic is very hard to sell to publishers. Sarah (and MJ if you're following), do you think that's true? Readers, are you resistant to historical fiction with a time travel element? I'm asking out of curiosity - I couldn't see myself wanting to handle two time streams at the same time.

  11. Hi Jane, a take on things from my perspective... time-slip historicals aren't very common, especially in the US. There may need to be an additional hook involved (the thriller subplot, the epic romance of Susanna Kearsley, the appeal of a specific time period). Timeslips are VERY popular in YA and children's fiction, though. Personally I love them, though imagine they're difficult to pull off well.

  12. I love them too, Sarah. The idea of being able to put yourself into your favorite historical period is so rich with possibilities. I'm glad you like them and review them!