Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: SCENT OF DARKNESS by Margot Berwin

THE SCENT OF DARKNESS focuses on 18 year-old Evangeline, the product of a lonely upbringing who is used to being a background player. Summers spent visiting her beloved grandmother Louisa, an aromata, in a tiny upstate New York town have given Eva an open mind towards, if not quite an acceptance of, magic (be it tarot cards, perfumed elixirs or prophesies).

When Eva inherits her grandmother’s house and finally gives herself permission to explore the one room that has always been off-limits, she finds a tiny bottle of perfume attached to a warning note. With one drop of the contents, Eva transforms. The scent becomes a part of her and makes her instantly irresistible to all she encounters. 

Eva finally lands her crush, medical student Gabriel, but he’s not the only one she attracts. When the attention of others becomes too much, she accepts Gabriel’s offer to move to New Orleans with him, partly in the hopes that the dark city’s mysterious aromas will be strong enough to cloak her own. New Orleans has its own ideas and when she encounters off-kilter painter Michael, Eva has to decide whether to embrace or denounce her powers.  Meanwhile, she’s plagued by doubts about whether the two men she is torn between can even see the real her beneath the scent she exudes.

My favorite character in this novel was New Orleans; my second being the small town in upstate New York which holds the beginning of the story.  The settings Berwin has chosen for the story and the descriptions of both locations enveloped me in an atmosphere as distinctly as a scent would have. Earlier this year, I read April Henry’s GIRL, STOLEN and loved how Henry was able to offer a first-person narrative from the perspective of a blind girl.  Not being permitted any visual descriptions, I was fascinated at how Henry told a story using sounds, smells, and the sense of touch to paint a clear picture of the action.  I expected SCENT OF DARKNESS to use aroma in a similar manner, but Eva is not an aromatist like her grandmother, so she doesn’t “think in smells” the way the main character in Patrick Suskind’s PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERED does. However, Eva as a narrator, is constantly making small, quirky observations that paint a picture of the character she’s describing (even as they make her sound MUCH older than eighteen.) 

For example, she describes her mother:
“From a certain distance, she reminded me of a slot machine with wrinkles that went straight up and down her cheeks deep enough to slip quarters into… She lived her life as if she were on a moving sidewalk in an airport.”

In another scene she describes her young teenage neighbor as “thinly elegant as only very young teenagers can be… The length and wildness of his hair made him look motherless.”

And the city of New Orleans gets the most loving descriptions of all.  In fact, Berwin paints the weird and wonderful gothic side of the voodoo city in a similar tone to the way Savannah is portrayed in MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL and I thought it was the strongest aspect of the book. I felt like I was getting sucked under the slow, lazy spell of the city as I read.

However, as much life as Berwin breathed into the non-living characters, I felt oddly disconnected from the flesh and blood (and scent) characters.  I never sympathized with Eva the way I’d hoped, although I felt that some of the disconnect might have been intentional on the part of the author. As the story is the journey of Eva’s self-discovery, it would make sense that she would be an unreliable narrator.  But I also felt the same emotional distance from the two main love interests, medical student Gabriel and painter Michael.  They were a bit one-dimensional- one was all good, the other more clearly evil, but even beyond that, I didn’t feel the connection in either’s relationship with Eva. This made it difficult to root for Eva to choose one versus the other. I was also frustrated that there were instances people were completely drawn to touch (and even kiss) Eva outside of their own control, but other characters- from a waitress to a truck driver- seemed very matter-of-fact about, or oblivious to, her scent. It came across as a great plot device when convenient to the story, but also disappeared when needed. As much as the main characters didn't come to life for me, the side characters, from a teenage tarot reader to an aroma to a medicine woman, were so quirky that they were instantly engaging.

Overall, the writing itself is lovely and paints a moody, atmospheric tale that dragged me straight out chilly Boston and plopped me into the steamy gothic bayou. I just wish the characters had come to life for me as much as the setting did.

Have you read any books lately that have sucked you into a particular setting?

*Full disclosure: I was provided an advance copy of this book from Random House for review purposes.

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