Rose builds her historical novels around secrets—some worth killing for—often buried in the pages of great political dramas. As in all fiction drawn from the past (in this case, the sixteenth century), the author, while guided by facts, is able to take license with the cast of characters: some real, others used to complement the exigencies of the plot. The putative star of this novel is Catherine de Medici, the woman behind the throne of Henry III and one of the authors of the politically infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Renowned for her love of fragrance, Catherine was not above using artfully designed poisons to achieve her ends, plucking Italian orphan Rene le Florentine from the jaws of certain execution and anointing him her royal perfumer. Rene harbors his own secret passion: a desire to reanimate human breath, to bring back to life those he dearly loves. It is 1533. Catherine has begun a decades-long association with Rene, the perfumer witness to the tides of history, the ecstasy of love and the agonizing grief of loss.
In modern-day France, Jac L’Etoile faces the impending loss of her brother, Robbie, felled by a mysterious ailment that may in fact be the effects of poison. Grieving deeply for her brother, Jac retreats to their laboratory, drawn to the work of Medici’s master perfumer Rene le Florentine and his quest for the elixir of reanimation. Recently reconnected with Griffin North, the man she loves, Jac—like Rene—believes it is possible to link the threads of past and present: a sixteenth-century drama played out on a contemporary stage, the actors star-crossed lovers of the Medici court and a perfumer who can tap into past lives as a conduit between then and now, antagonists reanimated in the present day, acting out unfinished conflicts.
Rose is in her element when wandering through the pages of history, in the quiet cell where Rene eases his ill mentor into the afterlife, capturing the dying man’s last breath in a glass vial, or doing the queen’s bidding regardless of his heart’s reservations. Such actions do not translate as smoothly to the modern world, where Jac L’Etoile not only subscribes (albeit reluctantly) to the possibility of reincarnation but combines her search for life’s elixir with Buddhism, politics, Tibetan monks and Chinese spies. It is pure fantasy to imagine this woman walking between worlds, the instrument of change: “a memory tool [that] could help Tibetans foil China’s efforts to control who became the next Buddhist leader. China has incentive to prevent Tibetans from getting the formula.”
What works in the haze of history is far less plausible in contemporary times, especially for a woman who indulges in a great deal of magical thinking. The prose, when set in the sixteenth century, flows nicely, realistic and artfully detailed. Bringing the story into the present undermines any sense of logic, verging on the unbelievable. The character of Jac L’Etoile is unsupportable in this format, even mystical realism too far a stretch in a tale of broken hearts, murder, betrayal, and romantics yearning to capture the elusive elixir of life. It’s just a bridge too far.