I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Atria Books on April 8th, 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction
From one of America’s most imaginative storytellers comes a passionate tale of love and treachery, spanning the days of Catherine de Medici’s court to the twenty-first century and starring a woman drawn back, time and again, to the past.
In 1533, an Italian orphan with an uncanny knack for creating fragrance is plucked from poverty to become Catherine de Medici’s perfumer. To repay his debt, over the years René le Florentine is occasionally called upon to put his vast knowledge to a darker purpose: the creation of deadly poisons used to dispatch the Queen's rivals.
But it's René other passion—a desire to reanimate a human breath, to bring back the lives of the two people whose deaths have devastated him—that incites a dangerous treasure hunt five centuries later. That's when Jac L’Etoile—suffering from a heartache of her own—becomes obsessed with the possibility of unlocking Rene's secret to immortality.
Soon Jac’s search reconnects her with Griffin North, a man she’s loved her entire life. Together they confront an eccentric heiress whose art collection rivals many museums and who is determined to keep her treasures close at hand, not just in this life but in her next.
Set in the forest of Fontainebleau, crisscrossing the lines between the past and the present, M.J. Rose has written a mesmerizing tale of passion and obsession. This is a gothic tale perfect for fans of Anne Rice, Deborah Harkness, and Diana Galbadon.
The concept of The Collector of Dying Breaths: A Novel Of Suspense excited me tremendously, so much that I joined NetGalley for the sole purpose of obtaining an arc. A Florentine perfumer recruited to anoint women with beautiful scents and to poison troublesome courtiers by the infamous Catherine de Medici, who is also obsessed with the alchemical potential to bring loved ones back to life by capturing their dying breaths? Sign me up!
However, I had not signed up for the awkward modern half of the book which was laden with babble of reincarnation, past lives, failed romance, and half hearted references to character-making moments. It felt as if I was reading two different books! Because of this mismatch, I feel as if it would be more accurate to review the book within its separate parts…
First, to 1537! Rene Florentin is rescued from accusations of murdering his mentor by Catherine de Medici, to come to the French court to provide beautiful perfumes, deadly poisons, and to attempt the Sisyphean task of capturing the souls of the dying for reanimation in new bodies. During his tenure as the Queen’s perfumer, Renee demonstrates his usefulness by playing a large part in Catherine’s enticement of her husband, and engages in a sanguine love affair with the Queen’s most desired and useful spy. The passionate pairing comes to a tragic and untimely end that forces Rene’s hand with his more secretive experiments, in a desperate attempt to bring back the ultimate flower of his life.
The historical segments of this book are a delight to read. Admittedly, the historical context is neither here nor there, for it is not richly written, but also not suggestive of gross inaccuracy. Though I wished for more intimate expression of the world of Catherine de Medici, the characters were nonetheless beguiling, interesting, and given enough depth to invite emotional investment. These segments included well written sex, deeply sensual alchemical allusions, adeptly teasing whispers of courtier life, and a thorough plotline.
Unfortunately, the historical characters and setting took a back seat to the much less pleasing present-day segments of this book. First and foremost, for some reason when the setting was shifted from 1537 to the present, the writing style suffered significantly. Suddenly, the plot points became cumbersome and clunky, uninspired, and worst of all, a grammatical nightmare! The present day chapters were completely inundated with sentence fragments that jarred my reading flow. “His cheek.” “Washed face.” “Was glad for them” – these are not sentences! How did such beautiful writing transition to such garbage? This made me mental.
The present day segments feel disjointed, certainly in part due to the rag-tag clump of main characters who seem to not belong together. First, there is Jac the protagonist, freshly grieving the suspicious loss of her brother Robbie, the great family perfumer who had been attempting to unlock the secrets of ancient Rene’s dying breath research. Next, Griffin, Jac’s failed love interest who she simply cannot let go of, nor fully reunite with. Then there is Melinoe, the unreasonably wealthy and discomfiting antique collector that all stories of curious artifacts require, and her step brother slash lover Serge. Finally, Malachai, who is a ‘reincarnation therapist’ and actually makes no appearance in the story other than in reference to past aid, and a phone call.
But wait, there’s more! Jac experiences visions of the past, which are suggested to be memories from her past lives, as well as the memories of the past lives of others that she can inexplicably access. Through these memory-lurches, Jac reaches the conclusion that in many manifestations of her life, she has repeatedly caused the death of Griffin’s past-life selves, which leads to a great deal of angst, and delays progress in the story. This element of reincarnation and past lives could have been completely set aside as far as I am concerned for it added very little, if anything at all, to the tale. I discovered later that M.J Rose is clearly very fascinated with this topic, and thusly it feels as if it was included simply for the author’s satisfaction. Needless to say, I found very little about the present-day storyline to be thrilled about.
As for the “novel of Suspense” subtitle… not so much. The plot ‘twists’ were extremely predictable, the character revelations were fairly straight forward, and I was not once caught off guard. I do not feel, however, that this was a detracting factor from the overall story, it just did not fulfill the promise of suspense. And as a side note, any book that ends with a whole bunch of historical artefacts going up in flames just guts me, even if I see it coming. Not cool!
To summarize, The Collector of Dying Breaths is simultaneously both delightful, and disappointing. If you have the patience to muddle through the present-day mess, the historical segments will be worth your efforts.