Fragrant Fiction: M. J. Rose' New Novel
The Book of Lost Fragrances
Join us as The Perfume Magazine's new journalist, Lynn Morgan, goes in-depth and talks with international author M.J. Rose about her latest book and her love of perfume.
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M.J. Rose’s, The Book of Lost Fragrances is the latest installment in her bestselling series of suspense novels featuring the enigmatic Phoenix Foundation, a shadowy and secretive organization dedicated to the study of reincarnation. In each of the previous books, M.J. Rose posited the tantalizing supposition that objects could exist, capable of opening perceptual doors to past lives. In her earlier Phoenix Foundation novels, The Reincarnationist, The Memorist and The Hypnotist, these objects, called “memory tools” were closely bound to the senses of hearing and touch. In The Book of Lost Fragrances, the sense of smell, and its profound connection to memory, takes center stage.
“In perfumes, we seek our dreams.” – M.J. Rose
Her fascination with past lives and lost memories drew the writer inevitably to the Proustian world of perfume, entwining two of her lifelong passions in what would become The Book of Lost Fragrances.
“My interest in reincarnation began when I was a child, “explains M.J. Rose. “I was three years old. My great grandparents were alive, and my great grandfather was something of a Cabalist scholar. I started babbling about breaking windows with apples. My great grandfather got so excited, because he had broken windows by throwing frozen apples in the winter with his cousin when they were children in St, Petersburg. He started insisting, ‘She’s the reincarnation of my cousin!’ My mother, who had studied psychology, insisted that was ridiculous. I was also very fascinated by the story of Anastasia, the woman who claimed for decades that she was the Grand Duchess, and tried to convince the world in and out of court that she was the daughter of the last Czar of Russia. That wasn’t a story about reincarnation, but it was a story about memory, the nature of it, and the difference between memory and delusion.”
M.J. Rose has spent 20 years studying reincarnation, memory and alleged accounts of past lives. During the course of her research, perfume became a haunting subtext that eventually moved to the forefront.
“Reincarnation is integral to the belief systems of so many cultures, “M.J. Rose reflects. “It is central to Hinduism and Buddhism, of course, but it also plays a significant role in Islam, and in mystical Jewish thought. Doing research on different memory aids, and ways to access past lives, I found that some cultures use incense to access past lives, and some of those scents have hallucinogenic effects.”
That information became a part of M.J.Rose’s general store house of information on past lives. Another, seemingly unrelated discovery helped the idea for the book germinate. “I found out that Marc Antony built Cleopatra a perfume factory,” she says. “its ruins were discovered in the 1990’s. in what is now the Israeli desert. It was filled with rare flowers and plants that were intended for the creation of perfumes. I also discovered that in ancient Egypt, perfumers were also priests: they fragrances they created were considered sacred, vital links between the earthly and the spirit realms.”
All of these ideas are woven together in The Book of Lost Fragrances. A taunt, international thriller, the story careens from modern-day New York, to Paris and Beijing, and ricochets through time from the Egypt of the pharaohs to Napoleon’s Second Empire back to the present and the eerie catacombs beneath the city of light. Throughout the book, its themes, events and characters are linked by the ephemeral scent of a long-lost ancient perfume.
The Book of Lost Fragrances follows its troubled heroine, Jacinth “Jac” L’Etoile, who is, along with her brother Robbie, the heir to a venerable perfume house, as she struggles to both rescue her family’s company from financial ruin, and to find her brother who has vanished, leaving an unidentified corpse and a murky swirl of rumors in his wake. Jac is unwittingly plunged into a dangerous world of both international and industrial espionage, and outside forces both political and financial conspire to prevent her from finding her brother and helping him to realize his dream of re-creating the long-lost ancient perfume that Cleopatra’s priests created to re-visit past lives.
Fast-paced and richly detailed, The Book of Lost Fragrances crosses genres and defies easy description, incorporating elements of international thrillers, murder mystery, the paranormal and history-driven fiction, like the books of Dan Brown, Steve Berry and Katherine Neville, all layered upon a thoughtful foundation of philosophy, archeology and mythology. M.J. Rose draws from the traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jewish mysticism and other, even older belief systems that embrace the theory of the transmigration of the soul to give her story greater depth.
From its breathtaking opening- Napoleon and his entourage of scientists, including his court perfumer, a distant ancestor of Jac and Robbie L’Etoile, descending into a newly discovered Egyptian tomb- to its climax in present-day Paris, The Book of Lost Fragrances is suffused with scents. M.J. Rose’s writing is evocative and richly sensual. The Book of Lost Fragrances is a numinous exploration of memory and desire, a hegira guided by the faintest wisp of a long-vanished perfume.
“Perfume has been a constant love in my life, “says M.J. Rose. “From the time I was a child growing up in New York, a very sensual place, filled with sights, sounds and smells. We lived across the street from the Metropolitan Museum. Our family traveled to Europe, and my mother would buy her favorite perfume, Shalimar, there, because the version made in the US didn’t smell the same. Later, as an adult, I worked in advertising, and I worked on the original campaign for Opium.”
Once research for the book began in earnest, it took over two and a half years to complete. M.J. Rose immersed herself in the world of perfume and perfumers, and made some surprising discoveries.
“I had wanted to be an artist when I was younger, and I went to art school, “she explains. “My family knew a lot of artists, so I was familiar with that world, but I had never realized before I started researching this book that perfume is also a work of art.”
One of the perfume artists she met while working on The Book of Lost Fragrances was Olivier Durbano. He ultimately inspired one of the characters in the book. Another perfumer, Frederick Bouchardy of Joya Studios, became an unexpected collaborator.
“Olivier was an architect before he became a jeweler, then he started creating perfume to go with the jewelry. I got to spend some time with him in Paris, and it was incredible.”
Perfumer Frederick Bouchardy came up with an innovative idea. “I burned his candles while I was writing the book, “says M.J. Rose. “I gave him and advance copy of the book, and he read it and loved it! Coincidentally, his business manager called him and said, ‘There’s this book you’ve got to read!’ and he had already read it. Frederick told me, ‘The perfume you describe has a lot of elements in it that I have experimented with.’ I had wanted to have a perfume made, and had looked into the possibilities of having a scent created to accompany the release of the book, but the cost was astronomical, so I shelved the idea. Frederick told me he wanted to make a perfume, inspired by my book. I couldn’t believe that a perfumer of his stature would be willing to work with me.”
The perfume Bouchardy created, “Âmes Soeurs”, (“soul mates”) was inspired by the elusive memory perfume M.J. Rose describes in The Book of Lost Fragrances but does not follow the author’s recipe note for note. Instead Bouchardy created his own version, blending orange blossom, jasmine, frankincense and myrrh to create a heady, luscious oil that combines the soothing with the sacred: according to aroma therapists, both jasmine and orange blossoms have anti-depressant qualities, their euphoric and sensual fragrances natural mood elevators, and orange blossoms have romantic associations, having been traditionally used for bridal wreaths and bouquets; frankincense and myrrh, two of the gifts of the magi also have symbolic meaning. Myrrh is supposed to awaken past life memories and activate the higher chakras and frankincense, a mediation aid in many cultures, is thought to facilitate spiritual healing.
Âmes Soeurs, will be sold initially at Henri Bendel in New York, then eventually in specialty stores around the country.
“Perfume really is an obsession for a great many people, “says M.J. Rose. ‘It always has been, all through history. Napoleon had his own court perfumer.
She is among the obsessed. She has eBay alerts posted to let her know when original versions of classic scents like Mitsouko appear on the site, and she searching garage sales and flea markets for the last remaining bottles of almost-vanished classics.
“I didn’t know how much my favorite perfumes had changes,” she says. “Allergens, alleged carcinogens, ingredients that had simply become too expensive, too rare or completely extinct. I had no idea how much re-formulation was going on, and I was shocked at how bad some of the re-formulations were. If you compare the current Mitsouko to the original, there is no comparison: one is a shout, the other a whisper.”
In addition to vintage Mitsouko, M.J. Rose is also partial to Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit and Coq d’Or. “I love amber,” she says. “Coromandel is the only Chanel I like; I don’t understand all the excitement about Number Five. I like En Passant; it’s all lilacs, and it’s unbelievable! You spray it and you’re immediately transported to a garden. I love Un Rose as well. And Âmes Sœurs, the scent of soul mates, which was created for the book is now my signiture scent. How could it not be? Magical - it starts off orange blossoms and jasmine and dries down to smoke and incense - like the story - the present and the past - in a sent.
“Perfume has been a constant love in my life"
Frederick Bouchardy in Grasse
She prefers complex, sophisticated fragrances. “A lot of perfume is too one note for me, “she says. “In the past, perfumes were more rounded, complex bouquets of different layers of fragrance. Now, you get perfumes that are all flash: there’s an initial, obvious burst of one scent and then there’s nothing else. It’s not a composition. It’s not a painting; it’s a daub of paint.”
M.J. Rose will continue to research and explore the world of fragrance in her next novel. Perfume continues to exert a powerful and seductive influence over the author’s imagination.
“What people are seeking in perfume is a dream, “she says. “When women talk about shopping for a perfume, and they can’t find one they like, they say, ‘It’s just not me’ because what they really want is a perfume that makes them feel like someone else, the person they are in their imaginations.”
Perfume often expresses unseen even hidden aspects of the wearer’s personality. “You can wear the perfume of your self, or you can wear the perfume of your soul. “says M.J. Rose. “In perfumes, we seek our dreams.”
The Perfume Magazine extends a warm welcome to Lynn Morgan.
Lynn Morgan is a freelance writer, based in Los Angeles. She spent two years working for People and In Style Magazine and her work has appeared in Antiques & Fine Art, LUXE, The Robb Report, California Homes, Art and Living and the Los Angeles Times, and she is currently at work on a book about art and jewelry. Her passions include good books, badly behaved dogs and deliciously obscure perfumes.
A special thanks to Lynn Morgan.