What if the primal ability to vividly remember a grandmother’s tenderness with a dollop of cold cream, or childhood summers with a handful of crushed flower stems, was just the tip of the iceberg? What if a scent had the power to spark past life memories?
In The Book of Lost Fragrances, the heir of a centuries-old French perfume house discovers an ancient perfume bottle that may have housed exactly that — and promptly vanishes with it, leaving a dead body in his wake. His sister Jac, a gifted nose plagued by scent-triggered hallucinations since her mother’s death, must face the olfactory perils of the family workshop to find clues to his whereabouts. But even as Jac dismisses the possibility of her brother's find, his trail whispers with an elusive, unnameable scent that sparks visions of ancient Egypt and the French Revolution. Jac begins to wonder if her demons might be memories after all.
The Book of Lost Fragrances, by suspense-novelist M. J. Rose, is easy to get lost in. It's a twisting, turning mystery, rich in history and international intrigue, with a love story for backbone and a dab of perfume behind the ears.
Just a dab, though. The star of the show is a fragrance that virtually everyone but Jac is anosmic to;1 other scents and perfumes are described in passing, often with just a handful of notes. It’s ultimately a good thing. Rose’s research is nicely evident, particularly in the history department, and instead of using it to spin florid language she keeps the focus on her strength: telling an intriguing story. If you can imagine combinations like bergamot and oakmoss, or call to mind church incense, you’ll follow along just fine.
The pages flew by too quickly to notice any major flubs (with one notable exception: the novel’s namesake, Cleopatra’s fabled collection of perfume recipes, doesn’t actually make an appearance). And while The Book of Lost Fragrances hasn’t earned a place on the shelf next to Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, it's just the ticket for easy, perfume-infused summer reading.
M. J. Rose is a bestselling author of 12 novels, and a founding member of International Thriller Writers. For The Book of Lost Fragrances, Rose spent more than two and a half years researching ancient perfume and studying with perfumers. Although she burned Joya candles while writing the book, memories of her mother's comforting Shalimar aura shaped the way the main characters relate to fragrance.
The Book of Lost Fragrances
By M. J. Rose. 416 pp.
Atria Books, 2012. $24.
1. Though after reading the novel, Joya perfumer Frederick Bouchardy was inspired to create an homage, titled Âmes Soeurs, The Scent of Soul Mates. Its notes are listed as frankincense, myrrh, orange blossom and jasmine. It is theoretically available now at Henri Bendel in New York City; do comment if you've smelled it.