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426 pages, Paperback
First published May 1, 2012
Once in a while, I’m lucky enough to receive a book that surprises me, that blows me out of the water and drives crazy with a love closer to addiction than mere enjoyment. This is not that book. I am indeed grateful to have received a copy through a Goodreads giveaway, but not nearly so grateful as I would have been, if the book had been a smidgen less … overdone.
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In large part, whether you enjoy a book or not comes down to personal taste, and my tastes are quite distant from those of Moran, or indeed, of Danielle Bretancourt. While she stands at a worktable and handles her essential oils, she is at her best—musing on the origins and histories of various scents, their effects on human perception, and so forth. But for the vast majority of the book, she is cast not as a perfumer but as an indomitable victim, the spy, and the love addict. All of these figures will be familiar to the average reader of romance novels, but they’re not what I was hoping for—and expecting, given some of the book’s earlier reviews, and its marketing blurb, which describes Danielle’s life as “[s]et between privileged lifestyles and gritty realities.” Danielle spends the vast majority of the book—the vast majority—living in luxury, inexplicably rescued from all of her “gritty realities” by the interventions of her monied social connections.
This is 2015. I think we can safely acknowledge that the safety nets that the wealthy enjoy are correspondingly more powerful than those with which the poor must make do. An impoverished aristocrat like Danielle, whose friends remain fabulously wealthy and famous, is far more likely to rise back to financial security than a woman who has always been poor, and whose social circle is also made up of the non-elite (see this article, and this one, and this one). This, too, is privilege. Many aspects of life have shifted since WWII, both in America and abroad, but the statistics remain mostly the same. Danielle’s relative intergenerational mobility (compared to her parents’ generation) is exactly zero. I simply cannot justify saying her situation bears any resemblance to the reality of an occasionally single mother and immigrant during the war.
There are many ways in which this book falls short in terms of form, too—the book is rife with comma splices and stacked adjectivals. (The editor and college instructor in me cringes each and every time.) If Moran has a motto, it must be to let no noun go without one or two or three descriptors. The problem with this sort of construct is twofold: (1) each sentence becomes bloated with unnecessary material, diffusing its emotive impact and slowing momentum to a crawl, and (2) over time, with so many adjectivals at play, Moran begins to repeat herself. Again. And again. I can’t tell you how many times Moran uses the same exact descriptions for dashing captain Jonathan Newell-Grey, but you can be sure he must positively bathe in patchouli oil for her to mention it so often—and apparently, he’s so “virile” that she feels compelled to mention it every time he walks into a room. Hanging around someone so pungent would give me a headache. Lastly (in terms of form), I must cast a skeptical eye across the Frenchisms that Moran scatters throughout her book. I’ve read enough French literature—most of it “borrowed” from my French friend M.—to know the difference between a French word thrown in to create a pretentious sort of atmosphere, and the kinds of French expressions that a Frenchwoman might actually use.
(I’m sure some of these failings could be addressed through the age-old “write what you know” conversation, but then again, I do rather like a nice romp through Middle Earth, and Tolkien—well, actually, wait. Tolkien appropriated most of his fantastical cultures from the ancient Norse and Germanic sagas. Whoops. So even he wrote what he knew.)
In summary, I found myself laughing and grinding my teeth at various points throughout A Scent of Triumph. Small historical incongruences bother me less than mis-marketing; this book would be far better serviced if described as an “era-inspired fairy tale” than a serious novel about life during WWII. And be aware: Moran spends the vast majority of the book in Los Angeles, and in Hollywood. A few chapters from other points-of-view than Danielle’s are thrown in somewhat haphazardly to add a sort of historical veneer and to convey the horrors of occupation, but they are brief, disjointed, and in many ways feel superfluous. It’s clear that Moran’s interest lies in boutique shops and posh American department stores, like Neiman Marcus. If you’re looking for a novel that takes a realistic stab at the emotional stakes of wartime immigration, persecution, and love, then this is (resoundingly) not it.