The Collector of Dying Breaths by M. J. Rose ~ perfume book review

The Collector of Dying Breaths by M. J. Rose, cover

The Collector of Dying Breaths by M.J. Rose brands itself as “a novel of suspense.” After reading it, I’d like to propose another genre for it: modern gothic. The novel features an old French chateau, complicated family relationships, dungeons, murderous intrigue, and spontaneous past life regression. Open the book and you practically hear the thunder rumbling in the distance.

The Collector of Dying Breaths follows two interwoven storylines. The first story is told through a letter from René le Florentin, Catherine de Medici’s perfumer. René learned his trade at a monastery, where he was apprenticed to a monk who was working on a formula for immortality, which required as an ingredient a person’s last living breath. His story is interspersed with Jacqueline L’Etoile’s present-day story, told in the third person. Jac comes from a long line of perfumers. Her brother is trying to finish René’s potion when he dies, and Jac is convinced to continue his work. (This all comes right away in the story, so I’m not giving anything away.)

Along the way, we luxuriate in a left bank Parisian apartment, spy on intrigue in the de Medici court, toy with reincarnation, get out to the French countryside, meet a lost love, explore a crypt, and meet a villainess who is a riff on Daphne Guinness.

Perfume plays a real role in the novel, and it’s clear that M. J. Rose is a genuine perfume enthusiast. Besides René le Florentin’s creation of Catherine de Medici’s signature scent — which sent me running to the perfume cabinet for my Santa Maria Novella cologne — the novel describes several intriguing fragrances laced with spicy notes and even references the “étoilinade” base of the House of Etoile’s perfumes. Perfumistas will catch a few inside jokes. For instance, slipped into one paragraph is a reference to Jac’s “friend Octavian’s blog” and its description of the scent of wisteria.

The novel also describes ancient perfume materials including “momie,” a material made from the spinal cord tissue of a corpse, as well as more traditional materials, like ambergris. I found these bits fascinating, and they integrated nicely with the rest of the story and didn’t feel too much like “and now I will dazzle you with a bit of perfume knowledge.”

All in all, I enjoyed The Collector of Dying Breaths. Give me a big, fat paperback on a tempestuous spring evening, throw in some paranormal phenomena and antique furniture, and I’m happy. Lace it with perfume talk, and I’m even happier.

That said, the author has a few habits that kept me from becoming as immersed in the story as I wanted to. The author tends to “tell” the reader how her protagonist feels instead of letting us experience it ourselves, and Rose's puppet strings intruded fairly regularly. This approach is fine for René le Florentin's portions, because he’s essentially reading from a letter. But for the third-person, modern-day portion of the story, I sometimes wanted to shout, “Please don’t tell me what she feels, tell me how she feels and let me experience it with her.” As a result, I often didn’t feel Jac’s love, fear, or curiosity like I wanted to.

Also, occasionally the author skims through a scene, tossing off a character’s “well-appointed dining room” or “expensive brandy.” More “telling” and not enough detail. Those scenes flattened for me. Either mention the glow of the polished mahogany and the liqueur’s mellowed flavor, or leave it alone. A dropped subplot about her brother’s possible murder left me hanging, too.

These quibbles aside, if you miss the days of curling up with your grandma’s Victoria Holt novels on a sick day from school, and you want to try something equally moody but more grown up, give The Collector of Dying Breaths a try.

The Collector of Dying Breaths
By M. J. Rose. 384 pp.
Atria Books, 2014. $25.

See also: Aleta's review of The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J. Rose.

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30 Comments

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  1. Oakland Fresca says:

    Tsk, tsk. I had to google Daphne Guinness!

    Don’t these sorts of books make you want to try your hand a pulp fiction? I most definitely do not have the makings of a great American novelist… but I am intrigued about creating a satisfying plot line. I recently read ‘The Perfume Collector,’ which I just thought was hackneyed… but I did enjoy its “in” references to the perfume world.

    I’ll give this ‘dark and stormy night’ novel a whirl as well!

    • Angela says:

      I actually have tried my hand at pulp-y fiction with the goal of producing “intelligent trash.” My first novel will be out in June. It’s a lot of fun to write when you don’t have the pressure of “literature” hanging over you.

      • Oakland Fresca says:

        That is so excellent. Made my day! Mazel Tov!!!! Me? I may just continue to talk the talk, without actually walking the walk… for a leeetle longer :)

        Goodness that is good news!!

        Congratulations!

        I know yours will be intelligent pulp!

        • Angela says:

          Give it a try? What have you got to lose? I bet you’ll love it….

      • Merlin says:

        Wow, that is absolutely fantastic news! I’m sure it takes lots of courage and perseverance, no matter how you represent the project to yourself:)

        • Angela says:

          That’s so nice–thank you! If you want to know when it comes out, you can sign up for my newsletter, if you want. It’s under the “newsletter” tab at http://www.angelamsanders.com. (Pls forgive the plug for my newsletter. I promise it will be a good one!)

          • Merlin says:

            Done!

          • Lavanya says:

            I’ve been waiting for your book and signed up for your newsletter the other day! :)

          • Angela says:

            Thank you! I really want to have a good newsletter, too, with interesting bits to read and not just a bunch of boring book facts. I figure if you’re going to get a newsletter, it had better deliver the goods.

          • Holly says:

            Yay! Signed up for your newsletter.

          • Angela says:

            I’ll do my best to make it worth your while!

      • AnnieA says:

        Fantastic! What is the name of your novel?

        • Angela says:

          It’s called “The Lanvin Murders.” The next one has a more exciting title, though. (Say this with a hint of menace in your voice) “Dior or Die.”

  2. Merlin says:

    It’s been a long time since I’v heard of Victoria Holt and it’s made me a little nostalgic! Not sure I could stomach the style of that kind of novel today, however!

    This one seems a little heavy handed in its use of gothic elements… Might it approach a (possibly unwitting) parody of the genre?

    • Angela says:

      The novel is definitely full of drama, but calling it a parody is going too far. Then again, if I found a box of Victoria Holt novels under my bed, you’d be able to hear the “yippee!” down the block. I love me some drama. Throw in a carnie, some orphans, a wild storm, a couple of hidden staircases, and a cute dog, and I’m done for.

  3. nozknoz says:

    I enjoyed the first book in this series so I’ll definitely read this. I also liked The Perfume Collector. I learned about these books through NST – I’m glad you do book reviews!

    • Angela says:

      I’m glad you enjoy our book reviews!

      • imapirate says:

        Okay, you have me hooked. Where will your book be available? I signed up for the newsletter.

        • Angela says:

          I’m so glad! I’ll let you know more in the newsletter (as I know it), but you should be able to order it through your local bookstore or online, and there’ll be e-book options, too. Maybe I’ll try to do some sort of newsletter book giveaway, too.

  4. Marjorie Rose says:

    I suppose it is evidence that I am narcissistic that I had to double take to confirm the author and I didn’t share a name? That would be a first! Can’t even find a novelty mug. . . :)

    • Angela says:

      That’s crazy! Is your middle initial a J? Whenever I think of you, I focus on the “Marjorie” part, because–as I’ve told you–it’s the name of my beloved grandma, and even hearing the name makes me warm all over and happy.

      • Marjorie Rose says:

        No–Marjorie Rose are my first and middle names. However, folks shorten Marjorie to “MJ” from time to time when talking/ writing to me. So, I guess it’s close-but-no-cigar. :)

        Marjorie was my mother’s mother’s name, too–and nearly every Marjorie I’ve ever met was at least 40 years older than me.

        Oddly, it’s out of fashion enough now that it is *commonly* (nearly daily) mispronounced. I get phone calls asking for “Muh-JOR-ee” or “Mar-jor-EYE” semi-regularly. . .

        • Angela says:

          Well, clearly it’s time for a revival of Marjorie. Frankly, I’m surprised it hasn’t come up yet! Shouldn’t there be a new building of luxury condos in the Pearl called The Marjorie?

          • Marjorie Rose says:

            Ha! Wait–did you know that “Marjorie” translates into “pearl” in Greek?! (Maybe based on Margaret, but still. . . ) Given that fact, it is clearly WAAY past due! :D

          • Angela says:

            Well then, they’d better get on it!

  5. hajusuuri says:

    Victoria Holt! It’s been a loooong time and I am pretty sure my grandmothers never read them but sure did enjoy the ones I did. I’ll check out the Collector of Dying Breaths. And congratulations on the novel!

    • Angela says:

      My grandmother–the one who gave me my love of reading–was a fiend for Harlequin romances. I spent many an hour on her couch with a stack of them next to me.

  6. annemarie says:

    Telling not showing may be a characteristic of this kind of fiction I guess. Rose did it in her ‘lost fragrances’ book too. I’ve just finished that one so I should crack on with the new one soon. Sorry to hear about Jac’s brother’s demise. I liked him better than her. She needs to lighten up. Go buy some Katy Perry Purr Jac , just for the sake of being tasteless for once!

    • Angela says:

      That’s so funny! Actually, I think it would be a nice detail in the novel to have Jac sniff it then set down the bottle quickly, but Rose isn’t much for humor. (At least in this novel–she might have a great sense of humor in person.)

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