Danielle Bretancourt von Hoffman, a talented nose and wife of an aristocratic glass manufacturer, is plunged into a nightmare when England declares war on Nazi Germany: her young son and mother-in-law might be trapped in Poland behind advancing enemy lines. As the conflict sweeps across the globe, Danielle turns to her perfumery talent and French aesthetics, her strong work ethic, and her good business sense to pave a way for her family’s survival.
Jan Moran chose an ambitious setting for her debut novel Scent of Triumph. For fiction writers, the war has it all: a sweeping international stage, a full cast of heroes and villains, good versus evil, life or death choices, intrigue, suspense, romance, heartbreak, and, of course, gorgeous perfumes. But it’s also a sneakily complex historic period;1 I’ve been an editor at World War II magazine for over two years and I’m more keenly aware than ever of how much I still have to learn.
For the most part, Moran needed to do a lot more homework. The most grating passage for me personally is an escape from the Warsaw Ghetto, through barbed-wire fence into a forest, in spring 1940. That high-walled urban compound wasn’t established until October. The average reader will mostly notice the weird absence of 1940s flavor: hair is in ponytails rather than pin curls, lips are sheer coral rather than velvety red, and the dialogue is a long way from the elegant exchanges between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. It's all the more striking given Danielle's glamorous Hollywood clientele. Against that vaguely out of place backdrop, the descriptions of Danielle's fragrances conjure Chanel No. 5 Eau Premiere, the Prada Infusions, and, toward the end, Jennifer Aniston, rather than the era's upscale hits like Shalimar, Joy, and Fracas.
History aside, Moran is a little more deft when it comes to the perfume. Jicky is a perfect choice for the tempestuous Hollywood charmer Cameron Murphy, whose Tabac Blond–drenched ex-wife stares daggers at Danielle even as she adopts Danielle's clothing designs. The passages where Danielle focuses on her livelihood are the most enjoyable of the book. As Danielle builds her perfume and fashion empire, traces of François Coty and Coco Chanel2 are nicely discernible.
Scent of Triumph has too many shortcomings for me to recommend it, but Jan Moran does show potential. This debut novel shows imagination, a knack for plot, and a good grip on perfume. With some guidance on creative writing fundamentals and a top notch editor, I have no doubt Moran could turn out some really fun perfume reading. Fingers crossed for her next project.
Scent of Triumph
By Jan Moran. 403 pp.
Briarcliff Press, May 2012. $17.99.
1. Novelist-historian Alan Furst absolutely excels at historic spy novels set in this period; I highly recommend.
2. Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War by Hal Vaughan is a great no-holds-barred biography that explains how the house survived a world war, as well as some lovely insight on the roots of No. 5.