‘Scent of Darkness,’ by Margot Berwin

March 7, 2013

‘My name is Eva, from the longer and more beautiful Evangeline,” the elegant, introspective narrator of “Scent of Darkness” tells us. “I had something very special once, something that I took for granted and lost. I set out to find it again, and as so often happens, it was right there in front of me. Or should I say it was right there inside of me, running through my veins like a blessing, or a plague.”

So begins Eva’s sumptuous faux memoir — a story of first love, obsession, youthful sexuality and coming of age. Eva lives with her brutish and unobservant mother, a woman who isn’t worthy of her own daughter, in terms of insight and sensitivity. Every summer she sends Eva to a little town in Upstate New York to spend time with her grandmother Louise, who embodies everything the girl admires. Her grandmother dotes on her, to the point of saving her blood when she has childhood accidents. Eva and Louise have long, ruminative conversations. As time passes, we learn that Louise, who has spent a lifetime making perfumes, has been secretly working on a parting gift for her beloved grandchild.

The world of intoxicating scents is familiar territory for Margot Berwin and her fans. Her first novel, the best-selling “Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire” (2009), ventured into the rain forest in search of rare flora.

The little town where Eva spends her summers is far less exotic. It’s sleepy and low-key, but cute guys live everywhere, thank God, and one summer Eva spies a gorgeous waiter — totally out of her league — in the local coffee shop. Later, after her grandmother dies, Eva goes back to the little town to settle the estate. She has inherited the house, and she’s more than surprised to find the beautiful young man studying at Louise’s kitchen table. “My name’s Gabriel,” he announces. “Like the archangel,” Eva thinks, and makes a mental note “to look up the angel Gabriel and see what deeds he had done to deserve his angel status.” For now, on this earthly plane, he’s a medical student going to school in New Orleans.

So we have a pair of lovers whose lives are about to change dramatically. Eva, who has just turned 18 and graduated high school, has been left a dramatic parting gift from her grandmother, but she has been instructed not to open it unless she wants to alter her life. She hesitates, but of course she opens it. Inside is perfume made especially for her, a devastatingly seductive blend of jasmine from the south of India, red roses and “leather warmed by a slow-burning fire.”


In “Scent of Darkness,” Eva’s grandmother has left her a dramatic parting gift: a bottle of perfume. (Pantheon)

“But still, there was something else in the perfume that I could not name,” Eva says. “I inhaled many times in an attempt to understand it, and although I couldn’t I knew without a doubt that it was the most important ingredient in the vial. . . . It was the scent of darkness.”

Once Eva puts on a drop of this perfume, she is, indeed, totally changed. Where she had been the one with the defining crush on Gabriel, now it is he who is totally smitten. When she goes to a party, she induces a near-riot. Cats and dogs rush, howling, to get a good sniff of her. Then the time comes for Gabriel to return to New Orleans to continue his studies. Eva goes with him, and at first she loves it. She’s reminded on every side of her grandmother, her allegiance to perfume and all things unseen: spells, enchantments, prayers, visions. And Eva carries her scent with her; she can’t wash it off. As far as she knows, it will bloom on her forever.

Then, Eva meets one of Gabriel’s friends, a local artist named Michael who makes an on-and-off living painting portraits in a nearby park. His touch is icy cold, and his disposition is much the same; he seems not to be at all influenced by her giddy scent.

Of course, that’s a big, fat lie. He’s as crazy about her as everybody else, but he wants to infuse his paintings with Eva’s disconcerting scent, and to that end, he bathes her repeatedly and shaves every hair from her body. That’s a good way of selling your soul to the devil, and it’s pretty clear that Michael is evil incarnate. All this while the unsuspecting Gabriel swots away at his studies.

Right around here, this modern gothic gets murky. Gabriel signifies good, and Michael is supposed to be wicked. But isn’t Saint Michael the archangel who battles the devil in the Book of Revelation? And as for this elusive scent, which everyone is supposed to possess (like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” possessing her home all along) — if this were true, then why aren’t we all rushing around burying our noses in each other’s necks?

I suppose none of that matters too much. Buy this pungent romance for your niece’s graduation, then try to look innocent when she elopes with the postman.

See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.

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