Review: "The Book of Lost Fragrances"

May 4, 11:05 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

I've just finished reading M.J. Rose's new novel, The Book of Lost Fragrances. Subtitled "A Novel of Suspense," the book had an incredible amount of prerelease publicity and was very favorably compared to Patrick Suskind's 1985 masterpiece Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. I can't figure out what the reviewers were thinking, or if any of them had actually read Perfume. Although both books are novels that revolve around the rare subject of scent, The Book of Lost Fragrances is a pop thriller, not a literary character study, and Rose is no Suskind.

The book is a tightly wound suspense novel that begins in the Hudson River Valley, where reality televison show producer Jac L'Etoile gets an unexpected transatlantic visit from her brother Robbie on the anniversary of their mother's death. Robbie possesses the remains of an ancient pomade container inscribed with hieroglyphics, and seeks the help of childhood friend Griffin, a noted Egyptologist (and Jac's ex-lover), to transcribe the inscription on the pottery shards. He hints of something big and mysterious involving L'Etoile family history, and Jac suddenly begins to have visual and olfactory hallucinations. Shortly afterward, Robbie returns to his family perfume shop in Paris and promptly disappears, leaving a dead body in his wake. What follows is a mishmash of intertwined plot lines involving the Chinese mafia, Parisian detectives, doomed Egyptian lovers, a Napoleonic era perfumer, a past life regressionist, the Parisian catacombs, a secret metaphysical society cum research lab and the Dalai Lama.

Rose knows how to weave a constantly shifting and surprising series of twists and turns, but falls flat on character development. She builds up anticipation for a dramatic conclusion, only to have the heroine blandly figure out everything in the last four paragraphs of the story. Loose ends and unlikely scenarios abound: What happens to Robbie, the bisexual Buddhist brother? How are Jac and Griffin individually able to physically defeat a highly trained assassin? Why have four centuries of L'Etoiles been unable to discover a secret compartment in The Most Obvious Place in the office? 

There is also the occasionally clunky prose, along the lines of "She contemplated the collection of rare hand-enamelled Fabergé picture frames on the Lalique table while sipping her favorite Mariage Fréres tea from a delicate Limoges teacup." Yes, yes, I know, we're in France.

If you're looking for an intense read about the world of niche perfumery, this is not it. However, The Book of Lost Fragrances makes for a pleasant and light summertime beach book. If you like Dan Brown thrillers, you'll love Rose's new novel.

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