Tuesday, February 28, 2012

FN Review: The Book of Lost Fragrances

When I was offered an advance reading copy of M.J. Rose’s new novel, The Book of Lost Fragrances, I hesitated. It wasn’t because, as Ms. Rose’s publicist pointed out, Publishers Weekly described it as a “deliciously sensual novel of paranormal suspense.” Here at FirstNerve we have no problem reviewing novels loaded with paranormal suspense. And the deliciously sensual is always welcome. (Mmmm . . . tasty!)

No, the hesitation was due to the prospect that The Book of LF would, by its mere physical presence on the shelf, cause a small but steady decline in testosterone levels. And you know how that goes—you review a romance novel and a few days later a small inner voice is saying, “Try putting a dollop of crème fraîche into that pesto,” and pretty soon the chardonnay budget is through the roof and you’re wondering if it’s time to start using a moisturizing facial scrub.

But rather than shrink from FN’s commitment to all things olfactory, I bravely accepted the offer and my copy of The B of LF arrived last week.

It had great looking cover art. Inside, a page listed the author’s previous novels including Lip Service, In Fidelity, and Lying in Bed. [Awesome titleage!—Ed.] Then came an epigraph from Marcel Proust, an unmistakable signal that the story to follow would be highly enriched with canards about odor memory. Indeed it is. M.J. Rose is a Proust Booster of epic proportions; an estrogen-fueled fabulist who takes odor-based recall to a whole new level.

The BOLF is ostensibly the story of Jac L’Etoile, a semiologist who has her own TV show called Mythfinders. Soon enough, however, we’re following multiple story lines set in ancient Egypt, Revolutionary-era France, and present-day China. The plot hinges on Cleopatra’s perfumer, who is charged with making a memory-evoking fragrance powerful enough to reveal the smeller’s previous lives. The perfumer and his lover take to their double-wide sarcophagus, each holding a jar of the scent, so that they may use it to find each other in subsequent incarnations. Their souls—and his vision-inducing scent—make numerous reappearances in the L’Etoile family, Parisian perfumers who have been running a successful business since before the Revolution.

Also in the cast of characters are the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, who want the fragrance to help them identify the next D.L., along with the Communist Chinese and their hired thugs who want to stop them. Plus the Jungian analyst from a Swiss nuthouse who wants the fragrance so he can settle some of his own Oedipal issues. Plus Jac’s bisexual brother Robbie, her Alzheimer-stricken father, and her ex-boyfriend Griffen North, now a studly archaeologist.


M.J. Rose stocks her story with enough characters to fill a Hollywood tour bus: dramatis personae-wise she’s the Charles Dickens of romance novels sensual novels of paranormal suspense. When Jac, under the hallucinogenic influence of the ancient Egyptian scent, has flashbacks to her previous lives, it gets a little complicated. With all the reincarnations, the effect is like flipping between three episodes of Law & Order SVU playing on different cable channels—while eating an entire jumbo tub of buttered popcorn. The overall effect, for me, was filling yet unsatisfying.

For other readers this might be a feature, not a bug. The reincarnation bit lets you thrill repeatedly to the same emotions with the same (?) characters in different epochs and places. It’s the multiple re-entry vehicle of romance novels sensual novels of paranormal suspense. More bang for the buck. Except that there’s not really that much bang in the book. TBOLF observes a certain literary decorum. Despite all the yearning and passion, I was startled when the word “cock” made its single appearance.

The genre elements of TBOLF let the reader have her cake and eat it too. You can have guilt-free sex with a married ex-boyfriend because you were hot for him in a previous life. You can be a modern American woman but also be suavely French. You can have no perfumery training whatsoever yet have a better nose than your father and brother—both professional perfumers.


Rose writes quite convincingly about scents and about the experience of smelling. I give her credit for sustaining an entire story based on smell—as a plot element, as a theme, and as narrative description. In this she does better than Tom Robbins. While she takes the metaphysical claptrap of Jitterbug Perfume seriously she spins it into a passable chick-lit potboiler.

Hey, who wants some more chardonnay? You really should try the pesto.


EdC said...

Wasn't there a book with a similar title about smells that never were, like the surface of the sun, maybe some kind of scrath-n-sniff?

Avery Gilbert said...


You've stumped me.

Sounds interesting, though.