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I did something today that was a bit out of character for me. Having six books to read, I finished the one that I least expected to be interested in. The book in question is The Scent of Your Breath‘, a ‘erotic bestseller’ written by young author Melissa Panarello. Now, the extraordinary thing about this book isn’t the quality of writing (I’ll get to that in a minute), nor the events it describes, but rather the selling factor of the author, in that she made her debut by publishing her sex diaries ‘100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed’ when she was just 20.
The novel itself is supposedly a fictionalised version of events; but word has it that it is heavily based on the authors own experiences during her adolescent years. Now, to be honest I’m not into erotic bestsellers, in fact, I can say this is a rare one-off that I’ve actually read something like this… and I’m ashamed to say that it was the cover that attracted me. The image of the young girl with the glass dragonfly poised over her lips had a ‘Silence of the Lambs‘ feel, and the dragonfly itself was highly evocative of Art Nouveau and Lalique.

So there, I am guilty of judging a book by its cover! Having no previous knowledge of Panarello, I soon discovered that her style of prose is heavily lifted from Anais Nin and the great Nabokov. It was an impulse read, a knee-jerk reaction to what has become a well-known image, and as I suspected, our Miss P. used it as a crude leitmotif in her novel of sensual cannibalism (hence ‘Silence of the Lambs’ pose) and feminine fatalism (french art, Anais Nin… you get the drift…)

Panarello’s writing was described by one reviewer as ‘Proustian‘; a word once used by my creative writing tutor when discussing my own work. At the time I didn’t quite understand what he meant by it (maybe because I hadn’t read Proust), but through this novel, I think I understand what he was trying to say. As a reader, I often encountered many ‘imperfections’ and jumps in the fabric of the story. Panarello seems to swerve between writing realistically and trying to nail as many aspects of her character’s past and present as she possibly can; thus resulting in a sort of diluted mish-mash of first-person and stream-of-consciousness narrative. This made the plot a bit ‘loose’, and in some places could have done without certain details. This type of ‘jabbering’ results in the plot foundering somewhere between the narrow straits of logical coherence that is crucial for the reader, and becoming an inner dialogue that only serves the writer’s ego. Thus I struggled with the sequence of things, as Panarello would at times forget to sign-post where she was heading with her story. These it seems were the Proustian moments my teacher was trying to explain to me! Panarello’s unstructured madness at first seems intentional, but soon reveals to be lack of experience parading as Proustian genius.
But having said that, Panarello is clever. You would never assume that a young girl like her would have the nerve (or experience) to write about the things she does. The innocent picture of her on the back cover does not prepare the reader for the violence she portrays – and violence is certainly what drives the narrative more so than her brief ennui-filled sexual rites. In fact, her characters’ views on sex draws parallels with the general attitude of a certain Holden Caulfield. Panarello’s heroine maybe be a lacklustre Lolita, afraid of losing her Humbert, but she is world-weary and wasting her time making love and waiting for death to bring her the next thrill.
Having said this, I sensed a certain dishonesty in Panarello’s accounts. I am afraid to say, that the plot of this book in the right hands, would be a masterpiece. After all is said and done she is trying to tap into the void left by Anais Nin. Panarello has quite accurately seen that it was Nin’s fluidity and lucidity that made her so popular. As a diarist, Nin often said that in order to write well, one must think of the brain as a kind of muscle that must be kept supple.
I would reluctantly call Panarello a disciple of Nin, but let’s get one thing straight, a ‘Delta of Venus’ this is not! But I admire her boldness. When it comes to a topic of love, almost everything has been said about it one way or another.
I give this 2/5 stars.
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