by Margot Berwin; Pantheon, 2013; 220 pages; $25
I’ll say this for Margot Berwin — the woman’s got style.
She knows how to set a mood and she knows her way around a turn of phrase.
And if Berwin’s sophomore novel is any indication, she also knows how to play to her strengths. “Scent of Darkness” oozes style right down to its inky black cover.
Plot, character development, remotely likable leading lady? Not so much.
But if moody milieus and bewitching turns of phrase a novel made, Berwin would be in business.
When her grandmother dies, 18-year-old Evangeline inherits the mysterious woman’s large stone house in the tiny Northeastern town where she spent her childhood summers. Reclusive and aimless since high school graduation, Eva, as she is called, hops the next bus to her new abode, where she finds two surprises await her: a fetching med student named Gabriel and a vial of perfume concocted by her grandmother, a master aromata.
“Do not remove the stopper, Evangeline, unless you want everything in your life to change,” warns the attached note.
The stopper is removed. Things change. Eva is suddenly the singular object of desire to anyone whose nose crosses her scent, including Gabriel, who wastes no time dumping his longtime girlfriend and whisking the newly palatable teen off to New Orleans when it’s time for him to return to his studies at Tulane.
There, Eva — still aimless, still palatable — is left to her own devices while Gabriel is in class all day. Good thing her smitten beau first introduced her to his landlord, the alluring and aggressive artist Michael Bon Chance.
Showing a remarkable lack of self-awareness and basic common sense, Eva agrees to become Michael’s muse and the foreseeable love triangle unfolds.
Much as it did in Berwin’s 2010 bestseller “Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire,” location serves as a central character in “Scent of Darkness,” and one wholly more interesting, empathetic and better developed than those given the benefit of dialogue.
As experienced through Eva’s meandering first impressions, the city of New Orleans takes on a role of its own — at once enchanting and clandestine, the ideal setting for a tale of magic potions and illicit affairs.
“That’s how New Orleans was for me, like a dream I couldn’t gain control over ... There was no backtracking, no thinking things over, only movement that was slow and dreamy but forward nonetheless.”
“Scent of Darkness” does indeed cast a slow, dreamy spell, but unlike that of its storied backdrop, things fail to move forward.
Assistant Features Editor Brooke Carbo: 256-235-3581. On Twitter @star_features.