Deep in the bayous of Louisiana exists a world of fortune-tellers, soothsayers, and makers of potent elixirs. Among them is Evangeline’s grandmother, Louise, a master of scent-making and perfume. And when Eva is eighteen, Louise leaves her the ultimate gift—a scent created just for her. However, the bottle comes with a warning: do not remove the crystal stopper unless you want everything in your life to change.
From the moment she places a drop on her neck, Eva is the object of intense desire to everyone around her. Strangers follow her down the street, a young boy appears at her door asking for a favor, and two men—one kind and good, the other dark and exciting—fall madly in love with her. As her greatest gift becomes an unbearable curse, Eva will be forced to wonder if it is possible to truly love someone evil and to question the true nature of her grandmother’s legacy.
My name is Eva, from the longer and more beautiful Evangeline. I had something very special once, something that I took for granted and lost. I set out to find it again, and as so often happens, it was right there in front of me. Or should I say it was right there inside of me, running through my veins like a blessing, or a plague.
Jasmine smells like human flesh. Mix it with cumin, which smells like sweat, and you have the scent of sex. If you spread it on your body, watch out, you’ll have sycophants all over the place, people crawling out of the woodwork to be close to you.
Human beings are defenseless against scent. They can’t hide from it because they can’t see it, or touch it, or hold it. All by itself it crawls into their brains, and by the time they’re in love with it, or the person it’s coming from, it’s too late. They’re tied to it forever, through the long, tight leash of memory.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that a great scent, like a great love, can crash onto the shore of your life like a wave, creating either damage or change or, in my case, both.
What happened when I came across a scent like that was that I fell in love with two men at the same time, and one was pure evil, and one was good. It was an old- fashioned love triangle. A classic tale that came up roses, and jasmine, and, of course, tears.
So, my name is Eva, from the longer and more beautiful Evangeline. And for me, the scent I found held my past, present, and future in its ethereal little hand.
I don’t mean to be morbid and mostly I’m not, but it is possible to love someone evil. I know that for a fact. I wish I didn’t, but wishing isn’t going to change my story.
It happened during my eighteenth year, when I was too young to know that there are events and relationships that never go away. That you can never take back. That change you in ways over which
you have no control.
My grandmother Louise, the person I was closest to, would say that none of that mattered anyway. That who we love isn’t a question of good or evil, but one of scent.
“Scent can do crazy things to the mind,” she said. “It can make us love people we shouldn’t and turn away those we should. It can make us desire the child of a criminal and shun the overtures of a saint. Never open your legs for a man whose mind you love but only for the man whose scent you can’t live without. That’s the one you’ll stay with forever.”
I’d spent every summer of my childhood with Louise, but it was the summer of my eighteenth year that changed everything. That was the beginning of all the danger and the beauty and the
Louise lived in the town of Cyril, which sat on a mountaintop in the westernmost part of New York State. It was a small town with only one road used for both directions, so it was said that the way in was also the way out.
The houses of Cyril were made of great gray stone slabs and ]enormous fi replaces, which never seemed to make them warm. They stood in a circle, huddled together on the flat top of a low mountain overlooking an evergreen forest. Look up and the sun was shining. Look down and it was a midnight of trees.
The physical description of the town would not be important to my story except for the fact that Louise was an aromata, a master in the creation of scent. A sorceress of nothing, as she liked to call herself, for scent has no physical form.
She chose to live in Cyril because she liked when the wind whipped through the evergreens. When the cool smell of the pine needles blew through the windows of her house, which she called the Stone Crow, and erased any trace of her art from the noses of neighbors too interested.
“Neve forget, Evangeline,” she said, “those who make perfume consider themselves magicians of the highest order. They believe the scents they make possess the power to turn hate into love. Neutrality into desire. They don’t share their choice of ingredients with anyone. They lock the doors to their laboratories with precision locks made by master craftsmen and later they kill those very same men so that no one will ever know the combination. Not a living soul.”
“I’ll remember that, Louise,” I said.
I called her by her first name at her insistence. She thought “Grandmother” was too formal and put too many years between us, making it impossible for us to be friends.
“Put irises next to your mother’s bed,” she told me, “and she’ll bring you a baby brother. Add a drop of lavender to the wash water and you’ll dream of the man you’ll love. Eucalyptus makes you taller, almondine fatter, and jasmine— oh, jasmine will wrap your entire life in a mystery.”
“Do you believe that?” I asked.
“Not all of it. But it’s true what they say about jasmine. If it comes from southern India, look out. Wear it often enough and I swear you won’t recognize your own life. You’ll be so confused about who you are you won’t be able to pick your face out of a crowd in your own dream.”
Excerpted from Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin. Copyright © 2013 by Margot Berwin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Margot Berwin is the author of the best-selling novel Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire. Her work has been translated into nineteen languages. She earned her MFA from the New School in 2005 and lives in New York City.
1. Is Gabriel’s love for Eva more or less powerful because it is based on the magic of the perfume? Is his love “real”?
2. Describe Evangeline’s relationship with her mother, Loretta. How does this shape Eva? How does it compare to Eva’s relationship with Louise? Does one relationship affect the other?
3. Stone Crow is home to Evangeline—the smells, the texture of the stone, the coolness of the air, and the memories of Louise. Is there a place that is like Stone Crow to you? What is it that makes it so special?
4. The author continues to engage all the reader’s senses in her descriptions of New Orleans—the heat, the sounds, the architecture. How are the differences in Eva’s new environment reflected in the story?
5. Madame Susteen tells Eva: “I smelled you the second your foot touched down in New Orleans. I know what’s in your grandmother’s perfume. But if I tell you, you’ll never understand for yourself the message she’s trying to send. Find out what’s in that scent. It’s the key to changing the terrible, terrible nature of your cards.” (p. 87) What was Louise’s message? What was the key to the perfume?
6. One of Evangeline’s tarot cards is the upside-down Magician. To whom does this refer in the book?
7. How does Levon fit into the story? What function does his character serve?
8. Michael is a painter. Does Eva’s perfume change the way in which Michael paints, or only his belief in it?
9. The author engages each of the senses when describing Eva’s painting sessions with Michael—the feel of the bench she lies on, the stifling heat of midday, the mermaids painted all around, the sound of the dripping fountain, the headiness of the wine, and of course, the scent of paint and the scent of the perfume. What effect does the sheer sensuousness of the situation have on Eva? What about Michael?
10. Although Michael never appears to be an innocent character, he becomes much darker as the story goes on. Do his actions become more malevolent because of Eva’s scent, or do you think Michael’s true nature becomes exposed to the reader?
11. Does Michael love Eva? Are his feelings toward her different from Gabriel’s?
12. Does Eva love Michael? How are her feelings different from those she has toward Gabriel?
13. What is the difference between love and desire?
14. At the gallery opening, Gabriel says to Evangeline: “Do you think this is what Louise had in mind? Do you think she made this incredible scent for Michael Bon Chance? Is that what you think?” (p. 163) Eva replies that she doesn’t know. What do you, as the reader, think?
15. Would Eva and Gabriel have fallen in love without the perfume? Did the interference of Michael help or hinder the true nature of their feelings?
16. Was Louise a magician?
17. Does Evangeline deserve to be with Gabriel? Does he deserve her? Can/should love be earned?
18. Do you have a favorite scent? What is it and why?
19. Is there a scent that conjures a specific memory or vivid feeling for you? What about a specific person?
20. If you could become irresistible to many people, would you? Why or why not?
21. Do you believe in love at first sight? What about first smell? Or touch?
22. What is the most important sense to you? Why?
23. As people change, so do their senses. Eyesight dims, hearing weakens, even memory falters. How do you think love changes? Does it gain/lose power or change into something else entirely?