The Book of Lost Fragrances
by Karen M. Rider
The Book of Lost Fragrances (2012, Atria Books) is an alchemical mix of the finest ingredients: international intrigue, mystery, romance, amazing historical context, and compelling storylines and characters. Author M.J. Rose has crafted her most astounding work to date in a series of books linked by the theme of reincarnation and the risks people will take to possess memory tools that trigger remembrance of past lives. At the heart of the novel is a mystical perfume—one that is worth killing for—known as âmes souers, which translates as “the scent of soul mates.”
M.J. Rose takes the reader on a literary joy ride spanning two thousand years of history: from Cleopatra’s Persimmon Groves, to Revolutionary France, to ancient and modern Tibet and China, New York City and the catacombs below the streets of Paris. Rose’s mastery as a storyteller is evident in her ability to keep a reader in synch with every shift in time, place and character. Her use of evocative imagery and attention to historical detail kept me more than eager to turn the page.
Jac L’Etoile and her brother, Robbie, are descendants of a long line of Parisian perfumers and heirs to the world famous L’Etoile Parfumerie. But there will be nothing to inherit if they can’t pay off the financial debt accrued by their father, whose mind has been ravaged by Alzheimer’s. To salvage the company, Jac insists they sell two of their signature perfumes but Robbie is convinced he can locate a book of ancient Egyptian perfume recipes said to have been taken from a tomb by one of the L’Etoile ancestors in 1799. Jac, who has been living in the U.S., is a mythologist by profession and has spent most of her career debunking legends. She thinks it’s futile to chase this myth of “Cleopatra’s Book of Lost Fragrances” when they have barely a week to face their debtors.
Robbie discovers a collection of Egyptian pottery shards that once held a perfume believed to elicit memory of past lives and reunite soul mates across the centuries. Inscribed on the pieces of pottery are clues about the mystical scent and Cleopatra’s lost book. Robbie believes if he can decipher the perfume that the shards once held, he’ll be able to resurrect the fortunes of the L’Etoile Parfumerie with a “ spiritual Zen scent” that carries “the promise of hope, of long nights and voluptuous dreams, of invitation and embrace…of lost souls united.” But the best chemists haven’t been able to identify the last of the five ingredients. Even more than his sister’s support, Robbie needs her exquisite sense of smell—a nose so attuned to scent even her father was in awe of her ability. Robbie is convinced Jac can identify the last ingredient that has been lost to history.
With the help of Jac’s one time lover and Robbie’s friend, archeologist, Griffin North, Robbie hopes to translate the hieroglyphics and deliver the pottery shards to the Dali Lama. Whether or not it really is a “memory tool” (to use Rose’s nomenclature) doesn’t matter. Just the possibility of accessing past lives is enough to send the Chinese Mafia chasing after it. They’ll stop at nothing to “manage the reincarnation of Tibetan lamas” and keep those sympathetic to Tibetan Buddhists from delivering any proof of past lives or reincarnation. Robbie soon goes missing.
Returning to Paris after her brother disappears, Jac must confront the fears she thought she had long moved past. She is again haunted by the same hallucinations she suffered from as a child, after her mother had committed suicide. Her father had sent her away for treatment with the renowned hypnotist and past life regression specialist, Malachi Samuels of the Phoenix Foundation. Learning of the pottery shards, Malachi follows Jac to Paris claiming he is there for emotional support. Malachi is a very private character who reappears in all of Rose’s novels that deal with reincarnation. He has far more than professional interest in wanting to collect and use these memory tools. With every book, I’ve learned a little bit more about Malachi but never enough to sympathize with him. (Still, I will read the next book in this series because Rose has made me curious enough to want to know what he really wants to achieve by possessing a memory tool).
Rose expertly integrates into the narrative the ongoing atrocities, at the hands of the Chinese government, in modern day Tibet. China has outlawed being reincarnated without government approval in order to prevent the birth/rebirth of the Panchen Lama, the only person able to recognize a new Dali Lama when the time comes. China is rumored to have kidnapped and brain washed the child said to be reincarnate for this purpose. This child, named Xie Ping has survived the brainwashing and remembered his life’s purpose. Educated as a master calligrapher, Xie Ping is scheduled to join a group of Chinese art students on a trip to Paris—and covert reunion with today’s Dali Lama.
Rose’s characters are flawed and conflicted, especially Jac, who is as strong as she is fragile. She boldly confronts her emotional demons, including Griffin, the former lover she fought so hard to forget, in order to keep her brother alive and ensure the pottery doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. Loyalty to family is played out well between Robbie and Jac, but also between Robbie and his beliefs (he is Buddhist). Jac both envies and respects her brother’s conviction for wanting, at all costs, to do what he knows to be right and just. The romantic longing between Grif and Jac is powerful and sexy—Rose has always written a great love scene and in this book she does not disappoint.
In The Book of Lost Fragrances, Rose’s prose is a lyrical feast, especially the descriptions of how Jac is assaulted by scent, in the catacombs, in gardens and on the streets of Paris. Not only does Rose open the reader’s mind to the psychic significance of the sense of smell, she captivates with historical detail and modern-day dilemmas that make the story as irresistible as the sent that may invoke the memory of past lives and bring together soul mates lost from one another through time.
Note: Though there are a few recurring characters between the books, you don’t have to read the books in order (The Reincarnationist, The Memorist, The Hypnotist) to enjoy this most recent addition to the M.J. Rose library of novels dealing with reincarnation.
Q & A with Author M. J. Rose
By Karen M. Rider
Q. There’s a strong physiological link between olfaction and memory. How did this connection grow into the premise for a novel on reincarnation?
The olfactory nerve is located near the amygdala, which is the area of the brain connected to emotion – including emotional memory. It’s also near the hippocampus, with is associated with memory.
And as it turns out – you need memory in order to identify a scent. To know what it is you need to remember when you smelled it and connect that to something visual that occurred at the same time.
It was just a short leap for me from memories in this life to past lives.
Q. What myth, or historical evidence, exists for a perfume such as the one in your book?
Cleopatra (69 BCE to 30BCE), who was the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, was fascinated with (some say obsessed by) scent. Marc Anthony built her a fragrance factory where he planted now extinct flora and fauna including groves of balsam trees (important in the creation of perfume at the time) confiscated from Herod.
In the 1980s, a team of Italian and Israeli archaeologists believed they unearthed the factory at the south end of the Dead Sea, 30 km from Ein Gedi. Residues of ancient perfumes along with seats where customers received beauty treatments were found there.
Cleopatra was said to have kept a recipe book for her perfumes, entitled Cleopatra gynaeciarum libri. The book has been described in writings by historians Dioscorides, Homer and Pliny the Elder. No known copy of the book exists today.
When I read about that book, I knew I had the idea for a novel.
Q. What was the most surprising thing you learned researching this novel?
There are perfumes that are hallucinogens. Throughout history monks and mystics have used them, as well as other essences, to enter deep meditative states in order to access their past lives.
More Q & A with M.J. and Karen at Soul of a Writer Blog: http://karenmrider.blogspot.com/2012/03/novelist-mj-rose-on-writers-and.html
M.J. Rose is the international best selling author of a dozen novels and two non-fiction books on marketing. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Oprah Magazine, the New York Times, Newsweek, Time, USA Today and on the Today Show, and NPR radio. The television series PAST LIFE, was based on Rose’s novels in the Renincarnationist series. She is one of the founding board members of International Thriller Writers.
For more information or to purchase the book, visit M.J. Rose’s website at: http://www.mjrose.com