Book Review: The Book of Lost Fragrances by M. J. Rose

The Book of Lost Fragrances
M. J. Rose
Atria Books, March 2012
ISBN 978-1-4516-2130-3
ISBN 978-1-4516-2149-5

From the publisher—

Jac L’Etoile has always been haunted by visions of the past, her earliest memories infused with the exotic scents that she grew up with as the heir to a storied French perfume company. These worsened after her mother’s suicide until she finally found a doctor who helped her, teaching her to explore the mythological symbolism in her visions and thus lessen their painful impact. This ability led Jac to a wildly successful career as a mythologist, television personality and author.

When her brother, Robbie–who’s taken over the House of L’Etoile from their father–contacts Jac about a remarkable discovery in the family archives, she’s skeptical. But when Robbie goes missing before he can share the secret–leaving a dead body in his wake–Jac is plunged into a world she thought she’d left behind.

Traveling back to Paris to investigate Robbie’s disappearance, Jac discovers that the secret is a mysterious scent developed in Cleopatra’s time. Could the rumors swirling be true? Can this ancient perfume hold the power to unlock the ability to remember past lives and conclusively prove reincarnation? If this possession has the power to change the world, then it’s not only worth living for . . . it’s worth killing for, too.

It’s surprising how enthralling a story about perfume can be but M. J. Rose has crafted a tale that’s almost lyrical in the telling, moving effortlessly from one time period to another and from one place to another and back again and, yet, with an air of nearly unbearable suspense at times. Of course, the truth is that this is not just about perfume. An enduring love in ancient Egypt, the terrible cruelties that took place in France during the Revolution, a modern-day Tibetan calligrapher who may hold the key to identifying the next Dalai Lama, a brother and sister whose Parisian childhoods took very different directions, an important man bent on having what he wants at any cost—all flow together in a seamless, almost hypnotic way that defies easy explanation. The perfumes themselves take on a life of sensuality and the reader can almost smell the heady fragrances. It’s as if the author takes the reader by the hand and crosses into a realm of enchantment and mystery.

I first encountered M. J. Rose a number of years ago when she was going to be participating in the Virginia Festival of the Book and my bookstore was handling the sales for all the mystery authors. I hadn’t been familiar with her work before so I read a couple of her books and, to be honest, they weren’t my cup of tea, so to speak, but there was something about them that has stuck in my mind, not the stories but the writing itself. I remember thinking at the time that I wished she would write something, well, different. Then, in 2007, The Reincarnationist was published and it was, oh, so very different. The Book of Lost Fragrances is the fourth in her collection of Reincarnation novels and, in my opinion, this is her breakthrough book. Will every reader agree with me? Of course not, but it will be in the top 5 of my best books read in 2012 list.

I’m not sure it’s possible to accurately classify this novel (or any of the others in the collection). Certainly, it’s a mystery—more specifically, a thriller, with murder, secrets, gangs and stalking in the forefront—but it’s also romance, historical fiction, political intrigue and more than a dollop of fantasy. All I can do is urge book lovers to look in every section of their favorite bookstores to find this must-read book.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2012.