The multigenerational story of a family unfolds amid the tumult of the Spanish Civil War and the emotional devastation wrought by 9/11 in this second novel from British author Brown (The Beauty Chorus, 2011).
When world-renowned perfumer Liberty Temple dies of cancer, she leaves behind a chest of letters for her daughter, Emma, along with the key to a villa in Spain, mysteriously purchased right before her death. Emma is still grieving the loss of her mother when her lover, Joe, is lost in the World Trade Center attacks—and that blow, combined with the fact that she's carrying Joe's baby and the impending sale of the perfume company she built with her mother, is enough to send her off to find the ruined villa in search of a new life. Woven clunkily into the backdrop of Emma’s story are the tales of Freya, her grandmother, and her great-uncle Charles—two young idealists from England who joined the fight against Gen. Franco’s fascist takeover of Spain in 1936. In a series of scenes that feel more like vignettes, characters are thrust together only long enough to accomplish the author’s agenda, making up their minds and then changing them, often without authentic motivation, their dialogue as tinned as the rations they likely ate. Violence, scent, sensuality, and the lush but devastated countryside of Spain make welcome appearances, but the transparency of Brown’s characters is too hard to overlook. Some guile and finesse might have gone a long way in helping the characters come more fully to life, but without it, this novel feels like too much effort for insufficient reward.
While the premise of Brown’s book certainly has roots in an emotional past, this novel unfortunately fails to take flight.