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Once Upon a RoseConfession time.  While none of my family or friends would ever describe me as a kikay girl, I do in fact have one almost hobby (almost, because the majority of my excess funds goes towards books) that would qualify me for the description. And the subject of that almost hobby features prominently in Laura Florand’s latest book (and the start of a new series, yay!), Once Upon a Rose.

What’s this almost hobby, you say? Here are some clues.  Matthieu Rosier, the sweetest, dream-boatiest (does that even qualify as an adjective?) Laura Florand hero I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so far, is the hereditary heir to an honest-to-goodness valley of flowers. Said valley of flowers is located in Provence, in the South of France, where Matthieu’s family has been growing and harvesting roses for the past 400 years. Still lost? Let’s get back to some real-world examples. Luxury brand Chanel has a partnership with a family very similar to Matthieu’s, to produce the raw materials for one of Chanel’s most iconic products.

chanel-no-5-illustration-11

Figured it out already? Yep, my almost hobby is collecting perfume. I only started collecting in the past few years (because perfume is even more expensive than books, dang it!), but ever since I was a kid I’ve had a working knowledge of how it’s made and where the *natural* components come from, courtesy of an article on the town of Grasse (called the perfume capital of the world with good reason) included within the pages of an old, circa 1970s Book of Knowledge Annual Yearbook that we had in our family library.

Considering my prior interest in the art of perfume making, I couldn’t help but squee and fangirl a LOT when I found out that Laura’s next series was going to be about the perfume industry. I enjoyed reading Raoul’s story in the No Place like Home anthology, but the little taste of the Rosiers and their valley that I got from that short story left me counting the days until the release of the first main course dish.

So of course I dove into Once Upon a Rose as soon as I received the review copy. And what I read did not disappoint at all. I plowed through the book in 24 hours, bookmarking dozens of “favorite” passages along the way.

There are many things to love about this book, but let’s start with the hero (since, let’s admit it girls, the hero is pretty much the primary reason why most romance readers read romance in the first place). I guess anyone reading this post must have figured out that I really love Matt. He’s such a refreshing change from the usual self-assured alpha males we read about in most romance books (including the chocolatiers/patissiers from the earlier Amour et Chocolat series. Sorry AeC boys!). A lot of alpha heroes have some deep-seated personal hang-ups from their past that color their present actions, but Matt is just so refreshingly *honest* about admitting his insecurities to the reader. And he’s so cute about it too – for most of the book he’s described as a growly, grumpy, BLUSHING bear of a man, who’s actually hiding this heart of gold that only our heroine Layla duBois is canny enough to uncover:

Specimen 1:

The guy was so darn adorable. He made her feel like some frivolous butterfly dancing around the head of a great bear that had just crawled, grouchy and hungry, out of its cave in the spring

Specimen 2:

He almost stroked his hand down from her hair to cover her heart. It made him uneasy, her walking round with her heart so vulnerable like that, without any gruff growliness to fend off those who might break it. Made him want to growl a little at everyone he saw looking at her just to make sure they didn’t get any ideas about stepping too close.

Layla is perfect for Matthieu. In the best of romantic comedy traditions, Layla and Matthieu meet, sparks fly, issues crop up, and arguments ensue, from which more sparks fly. When she is first introduced, Layla is a musician going through a dry spell, who has received the unexpected windfall of a house in Provence. When she accidentally (or maybe not so accidentally, thanks to the interference of a wily Tante Colette, whom Laura Florand seems to be setting up to be the “fairy godmother” of this series) stumbles upon Matt and his valley, she immediately settles in and starts putting down roots.

In fact, putting down roots seems to be one of the underlying themes of the book. We have Matt, who is so linked to the valley’s history, so tied down to his responsibility to the land, that he actually views himself as the valley. Both of the women in his life, Tante Colette and Layla, realize this and try to help him expand his view of his self:

 “You know, Matthieu, a valley is a very big thing to be. But you’re human. So you’re much more than that… One little piece of your land to someone else, Matthieu. Maybe it’s not the beginning of the end. Maybe, since you’re human and humans, even more than valleys, are famously good at adapting, you need to learn to be a little bit more flexible.”

“Besides, Matthieu, you can’t be a valley,” Colette said with a quiet firmness, as if she’d said that the earth was not the center of the universe. “You’ve got to be bigger than that. There are more ways of growing bigger than a valley than escaping from it. One way might be to crack it open so that even while you’re here, it has room to let the whole world in.”

“Because I agree with your aunt, that a human is bigger than a valley, and you have feet, and you can walk out of it if you want to. You even have a brain capable of building wings and flying, if you want to be a kite. But I like that about you, the way four hundred years of history and five million tons of earth were put on your shoulders and you said, ‘Yes, I’m strong enough for that.’”

And then there’s Layla, who finds her music again in Matt’s peaceful valley of roses:

“She couldn’t expect Matt to give up a part of who he was on behalf of her music. But with her music, she constantly ripped out chunks of who she was and gave them to the rest of the world… She couldn’t actually remember the last time she had nourished herself or taken care of herself. She’d been so focused on blooming, blooming, blooming, and desperate when no more blooms came.”

I absolutely adore Laura Florand’s use of simile, metaphor, and analogies to set the stage for her characters’ development throughout the book. Yes, there were indeed times when the story seemed to ramble along with no resolution in sight (a harsher editor would no doubt have insisted on cutting a few scenes), but it is always to the writer’s credit when her skill with words actually encourages the reader to ramble and to grow along with the characters. So when Layla finally understands the true nature of her music, and what is truly important to her, we rejoice with her:

“As if she was part of  this great sweep of existence that made her mortal and immortal both, as if she had existed before she ever played a note, and she would exist after those notes stopped.

Which was what her music did—made immortality out of her mortal human experience, turned it into something that would outlast her life. But… she’d always had to rely entirely on that music to anchor her into human history. She’d never been able to be part of it by just being herself.”

And when a hurt Matt misunderstands what Layla is trying to tell him, we sympathize with him almost as much as we want to whack him on the head for being so dense:

“In this old church, the quiet sifted off the stone, centuries of pleading and gratitude, of grief and joy, of guilt and promises, all of that absorbed and cleansed from the air, released back out in this long, soft hush.

A  hush that said: Even when hurt to the deepest part of his heart, a man could be strong.”

If this first book in the La Vie en Roses series is to set the tone for future books, then it looks as though it is to be a slower-paced, more contemplative series compared to the Amour et Chocolat books. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the writing style serves the type of story Laura Florand is trying to tell. If the AeC books were more about individual triumphs against adversity, them Vie en Roses shows us a different face, in the solidarity that can be achieved by close-knit family ties.

Matt’s interactions with his cousins Raoul, Tristan, and Damien involve a lot of good-natured ribbing and one-upmanship (these men being the alpha males that they are, of course each one simply must prove how he’s better than the others), but they’ve obviously got each other’s backs. Tante Colette and Jean-Jacques Rosier (AKA Pépé) have a complicated history owing to the fact that Colette is only a stepsibling, and the small matter of a few missing family heirlooms; but it’s this reader’s theory that come the final installment in this family saga, the long-standing feud will have been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.  And then there’s the cousin we haven’t met yet, Lucien, whose hints of prodigal son backstory indicate very strongly that Lucien’s might be the penultimate book that closes this family saga.

Tristan’s book is next up for release. As a nez (or nose, for us English-speaking folks), he’s the only cousin who’s involved in the actual blending and creation of perfume. I can’t wait to see what type of woman Laura Florand’s got in store for him. Considering the sheer number of fragrance notes the perfumer has to play with, I wonder what notes he’ll associate with her?

P.S. The series title is a play on the Edith Piaf song “La Vie en Rose”. It inspired me to put together a playlist of songs that were themed around roses, but considering my own family history, of course one song really came to mind first:

Original 1940’s version, recorded by Shanghainese singer Yao Lee in 1940. This is one of the few Chinese songs in the early 20th century that became popular in the West. Not one, but two English covers (by Frankie Lane and Petula Clark in the 1950s). The melody’s in that characteristic Shanghai fusion sound that was all the rage in the nightclubs and dance halls of the Bund in pre-WWII Shanghai. There’s enough Western influence in the musical styling for me to imagine Tante Colette and Pépé dancing to this tune in their youth.

And this one’s a more recent Taiwanese cover version that I love:

English translation of the lyrics can be found here:

http://lyricsplayground.com/alpha/songs/m/meiguimeiguiwoiaini.shtml

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