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.