Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin ~ perfume book review

Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin

Think of a perfume that has a way of wearing you, instead of the other way around. Now imagine if one day that scent began to emanate from your pores, and had the power to seduce everyone around you. That’s what befalls the heroine of Margot Berwin’s Scent of Darkness, a contemporary fairytale that takes fragrance out of the lab and into the realm of Louisiana folk magic.

Evangeline is the granddaughter of a gifted “aromata,” a perfumer who is a wise woman and folk magician more than a cosmetic chemist. When Evangeline is 18, her grandmother dies, leaving Evangeline her house — and a vial of perfume: “Do not remove the stopper, Evangeline, unless you want everything in your life to change.” And change her life it does, as the perfume becomes a permanent part of her and its scent fills anyone who smells her with desire. Though the perfume snares the man she longed to be with, its unfading presence continues to draw dangerous attention. Evangeline follows her love to New Orleans where she hopes the city’s own sultry mugginess will dampen her scent.1 But instead of safety she finds a painter with his own dark power of attraction who offers the key to understanding her grandmother’s gift — if she’s willing to pay with heartbreak.

Scent of Darkness was, at first, bewitching. It’s not a literary masterpiece of magical realism, but Berwin’s dreamy prose is a refreshing break from the typical popular fiction accounts of perfumers piecing together aromachemicals: “Jasmine smells like human flesh. Mix it with cumin, which smells like sweat, and you have the scent of sex. If you spread it on your body, watch out, you’ll have sycophants all over the place, people crawling out of the woodwork to be close to you.”

But the novel’s glaring flaw is that Evangeline’s perfume wears her instead of the other way around, and she isn’t much of a heroine because of it — like a Sleeping Beauty who is zonked out for the whole thing. She acknowledges her mediocrity before her transformation, yet afterward she is content to be led along through life by the men she has infatuated, content to be special by virtue of her scent alone. She has no personal preferences, no identity beyond her two love interests: she goes where they ask her to, sits around waiting for them, even drinks what they drink — couldn’t she have gotten a hobby, and asked for red wine instead of bourbon?

Similar criticisms have been made of Twilight’s Bella, and given the popularity of that franchise I’m sure there are plenty of readers who won’t be distracted by Evangeline’s lack of depth and development. But if you are infuriated by people whose lives revolve around getting and having a significant other, you should probably pass this one by. I definitely fall into that category, and will gladly send this along to friends who might like it more than I did. If it finds its own way back to my book shelf some day I’ll likely keep it, I really did enjoy some of the passages. But in the meantime, I’m hoping publishers find the moxie to publish stories where perfume allows the characters to come into their own.2 Personally I would find that to be a lot more relatable, and a lot more enjoyable to read about. 

Scent of Darkness
By Margot Berwin. 240 pp.
Pantheon, 2013. $25.

1. I don't know New Orleans so I can't comment on the book's portrayal, but if you do and you've read it, please share!

2. One that does, albeit not through perfume, is The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore.

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14 Comments

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  1. miss kitty v. says:

    Pity. :( I go gaga whenever perfume is mentioned in a book. Oh, well… I don’t have any space left on my bookshelves anyway.

  2. ladymurasaki says:

    I’ve read this while on holiday and found Evangeline frustratingly bland.

    • mysterious_scent says:

      Thanks for another interesting review. I will pass on this book.
      I am an avild reader. My book addiction has a much longer history than my perfume obsession

      • mysterious_scent says:

        Oops, replied at the wrong spot!

  3. Oakland Fresca says:

    I read the first Twilight book and was horrified that millions of girls were reading it. Bella, as I recall, also attracts her suitors by her smell… But you can’t figure out what else… I like your analysis boiling down this new novel to the scent wearing the heroine, rather than the heroine wearing the scent. Nice review. I’ll pass on the book.

  4. Aparatchick says:

    Thank you for the review though it doesn’t sound like my kind of book. I will gladly second your recommendation of The Life of Objects. That was an excellent book.

    • mysterious_scent says:

      I want to read Life of Objects

  5. olenska says:

    Waaaaait. Heroine with an older female relative who is a perfumer-cum-root worker … a mystery bottle whose contents are powerfully magical… an unexpected, creative love interest with an edge of unpredictability… New Orleans, even? Oh, I know! It’s JITTERBUG PERFUME by Tom Robbins!…. no?

    • mysterious_scent says:

      Lol, I read JITTERBUG PERFUME, quite imaginative and content rich. Characters are unique and very recognizable, if lack of development. Still, one of the best books with perfume-theme, only second to Perfume, the Story of a Murderer, in my humble opinion

      • olenska says:

        I really do love that book too, but even more, I love SKINNY LEGS AND ALL, which follows just one character mentioned in JITTERBUG (Ellen Cherry Charles, another genius waitress member of the Daughters of the Daily Special) on her own mythical adventure. :)

  6. dora says:

    This reminds me to finish reading what I started. The review reminds me of why I lost interest and the comments make me want to read ‘Jitterbug Perfume.’ The definitive perfume novel has yet to be written in my humble opinion. “Perfume’ was a good effort, but didn’t quite measure up, though worth the read. ‘The Scent of Darkness’ seemed written by a teenager. Is that the intended audience?

  7. maggiecat says:

    In spite of my passion for perfume, and for New Orleans, I have to many “good” books waiting to read a romance novel right now. Maybe if it turns up in our local used bookstore in the summer…

  8. RavynG says:
  9. Ines says:

    Aaahh, and I had such high hopes for the book. :(
    Personally, I hate reading about women showing no backbone, or personal preferences so I will have to pass on this one.

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