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The Commons
The Arts

Perfume and memory: M.J. Rose

Originally published in The Commons issue #147 (Wednesday, April 11, 2012).



BRATTLEBORO—The theme of reincarnation weaves through the family fabric of author M.J. Rose.

At age three, Rose related to her great-grandfather a memory about when they broke windows with apples. But, said Rose, that never happened. At least not for her.

Rose’s mother told her years later that her remembrance stopped great-granddad in his tracks. Great-grandfather and his cousin Shlomo, as children, broke windows with apples. In Russia. In the late 1800s.

As a Kabbalist who believed in reincarnation, Rose’s great-grandfather took her story as proof Shlomo had reincarnated as his great-granddaughter.

Rose said her mother thought reincarnation “silly,” but curious, decided to conduct her own research. Mom read The Search for Bridey Murphy by Dr. Morey Bernstein about a woman who remembered multiple past lives. Her fascination with reincarnation took root.

After her mother’s death, Rose began exploring the theme of past lives in her novels.

“Books are like making soup,” she said. “While it simmers, you’re not sure how all the ingredients will taste.”

Rose, who strives to tackle original topics in her novels, realized that few American novels dealt with reincarnation.

“I’m doomed to this world the rest of my life,” she joked.

Before taking on reincarnation, Rose explored psychology in her previous eight books. A reader pointed out to her the similarities between psychology and reincarnation.

According to Rose, the concept of reincarnation — studying past lives to understand how they affect one’s present life — echos psychological therapeutic practices where people study their childhoods to understand themselves as adults.

In March, Rose and publisher Atria launched Rose’s fourth reincarnation-themed novel, The Book of Lost Fragrances.

The novel follows soul mates separated by fate as they search for a perfume created by Cleopatra’s perfumer. The perfumer, Thoth, created the scent before his execution to reunite with his soulmate in their next lifetimes.

“I love the world of perfume,” said Rose. “It’s all about imagination.”

In her former professional life, Rose worked as creative director at the ad agency that helped launch Revlon’s perfume Xia Xiang.

The book opens in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1799 with perfumer Giles L’Etoile stealing a vessel of Ame Soeurs (“Soul Mates” in French) perfume from a tomb while on expedition with Napoleon, traveling to China and France as characters attempt to smuggle the perfume to the Dalai Lama, and ending more than 200 years later with Jac L’Etoile choosing to stem fate’s riptide even at the sake of her own heart.

Writing the last chapter made Rose cry. She said her character Jac’s final choice blew her away.

“Jac did that — she decided what she was going to do,” said Rose adding “it’s magic” when characters take over and show their writer they have become fully fleshed.

Adding to the novel’s suspense is the story of Xie Ping, a Tibetan man and Panchen Lama destined to become the next Dalai Lama, trying to escape China. Jac’s brother Robbie wants to deliver Ame Soeurs to the Dalai Lama so it can help identify reincarnated Lamas.

Rose said ever since China instituted an order in 2007 that banned living Buddhas from reincarnating without having registered with the government, she has wanted include the issue in a novel.

In her opinion, the Chinese government doesn’t care if living Buddhas register. What the government cares about is that when the current Dalai Lama dies, it can claim his predecessor is illegitimate.

“It’s nonsense,” said Rose.

The Book of Lost Fragrances is Rose’s fourth book to explore “memory tools” that help people remember past lives. The tools deal with the five senses, she said, adding she knew she would eventually write a book using perfume as a memory tool.

Although the novels share recurring characters, Rose did not design them as a series, saying that each stands alone.

Rose said when she created Jac, she realized this character had a longer arc within the the reincarnation novels. Jac grew up suffering from horrific nightmares and questioning her sanity. Rose said that in the next book, Jac will need to come to terms with her nightmares and answer the question, “Am I crazy?”

Rose said she can relate to her character. “I’m much saner when I’m writing than when I’m not,” said Rose, who calls “worry” her default setting.

Rose spent almost three years researching The Lost Book of Fragrances.

“Don’t even ask,” she said as she laughed about the “bags and bags” of perfume samples she obtained doing research.

Rose said she burned “a lot” of scented candles while writing the novel. She sent a copy of the manuscript to her favorite candlemaker and scent designer Frederick Bouchardy, owner of Joya Studios.

Bouchardy fell in love with The Lost Book of Fragrances. Coincidently, the perfumer was in the middle of developing a fragrance using ingredients similar to Rose’s memory perfume. He offered to create a perfume based on the fictional Ame Soeurs.

According to Rose, creating a new perfume can cost as much as $150,000. She was thrilled by Bouchardy’s offer.

Rose will be in Brattleboro April 14 as one of four authors participating in Atria Book’s Mystery Bus Tour. To make the visit more fun for readers, Rose said she will bring “goodies.” Readers can come to Mystery On Main Street bookstore to receive specialty bottles of Bouchardy’s Ame Soeurs.

To learn more about M.J. Rose and her novels, visit her website, www.mjrose.com.

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