Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin
Pantheon Books, 2013
Review by Nicole Bartley
The Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin dabs a touch of exotic into the readers’ lives but, in the end, is just a cheap perfume. It explores glamorous, romantic dreams that many women have—dreams that those same women would not want to experience in real life.
The main character, Eva, discovers a small bottle of perfume that her recently deceased grandmother left as a gift. With it is a written warning: “Don’t remove the crystal stopper, Evangeline, unless you want everything in your life to change.” Of course, she puts on this otherworldly perfume of jasmine, rose, leather, fire, and the mysterious scent of darkness, all of which infuses with her body and becomes her natural musk. No creature can resist her intoxicating aroma, and her life is soon jeopardized by aggressive men, pampering women, and crazed dogs.
This is when romantic fantasies become apparent. Because of this new scent, a plain girl from upstate New York gains the attraction of her handsome crush, Gabriel, and moves to exotic New Orleans where her life is consumed with paranormal customs and dangerous love affairs. While there, she meets Gabriel’s painter friend, Michael, who is also inescapably attracted to her. He is greedy and disingenuous, and sets out to ruin Eva’s relationship with nice but misguided Gabriel.
The quality of narration and characterization volleys between fantastic and disappointing. The character progression is intriguing because each character is initially perceived as amazing, but then loses his or her glamour and is eventually cast away. Eva’s mother, grandmother, and various waitresses have distinct voices that portray regional personalities, but other main characters sound just like the narrator. Eva’s narration reads as if she were writing her own story in disjointed memories, but she’s delusional because she believes that her grandmother gave her Gabriel from beyond the grave. She also disregards the fact that Gabriel cheated on and left his girlfriend for her. She justifies this by believing that he chose to be with her because he was meant to, and the scent just made that possible.
The first quarter of the book was unsatisfactory. Seventy pages set up the rest of the novel, as if the story doesn’t actually begin until the main characters reach New Orleans. Berwin seems to be more comfortable writing about that setting, which the characters glide through more smoothly than in New York. But Gabriel is also a mere instrument to transport Eva to that city. Once he completes his task, he disappears into libraries to study and fully emerges only once during a moment of conflict. It’s as if everything was buildup for the real story: Eva’s interactions with Michael.
Even here, the level of intrigue isn’t as intense as the back summary suggests. Berwin doesn’t allow double meaning to exist. For example, on page 103, Michael and Evangeline are discussing whether she will sit for one of his paintings.
“‘…I want to capture a full body this time, not just the face, like I do in the park.’
“‘I don’t want to be captured by you.’
“He stood away from me and took both my hands in his.
“‘It’s just a figure of speech, Evangeline. All painters use it…’”
Instead of allowing readers to detect innuendo—capture her body, heart, and soul; keep her physically restrained; he’s lying, it’s not just a figure of speech in this case—Berwin overtly dispels any suspicion they may have. This removes dramatic irony, mystery, and tension.
Finally, the resolution is fake. Everything appears to be tied up in a pretty ribbon, but it’s loosely tied. Eva manages to satisfy Michael and keep him away, but his promises are empty and there is nothing stopping him from finding and demanding more from her. Also, Eva will always exude her supernatural scent. Despite returning home, she is still in an environment that she left predominately for her own safety. As her grandmother warned, her life is forever changed because of that scent, and Berwin almost makes readers forget that fact. When they remember, it results in a feeling of being cheated, as if Eva went through all of that for nothing.
To make matters worse, this book needed more thorough editing to spot redundancies, plot gaps, and continuity errors.