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Seduction by MJ RoseAh, those summer reading lists, with their fleeting summaries. A blurb about Seduction, a new novel by M.J. Rose, described it as historical fiction about Victor Hugo’s obsession with the occult.

Although I studied a number of French novels in college—from Sentimental Education to The Plague—I didn’t know much about Hugo. Indeed, before I saw the film version of Les Misérables this winter, my familiarity with Hugo’s greatest novel was based on a ninth-grade assignment to read the section “Les Chandeliers de l’évêque.” In French, naturellement. Torturous. (For years, I believed that Jean Valjean was imprisoned for his theft of the bishop’s candlesticks.)

So Seduction seemed like an opportunity to close the knowledge gap a bit where Hugo was concerned. The promising opening chapter, set in 1855, places Hugo on the British isle of Jersey, in exile. He’s still mourning the death, several years earlier, of his beloved daughter Didine. Hoping to connect with her, he begins experimenting with a primitive Ouija board. Thereby, Hugo tells us, he opens his soul to the devil.

Seduction introduces another protagonist in Chapter 2: Jac, a young woman of the present day. She’s a TV myth-buster with a troubled past: a mother who suicided, a history of hallucinations, a stint as a teen at a Jungian clinic, and, most recently, a lost lover.

Jac—we learn it’s short for Jacinthe—hails from a family of legendary French perfume makers and is ultra-sensitive when it comes to scent. Her Jungian therapist, an ardent believer in reincarnation, suspects that Jac has lived other lives, but she rejects this belief. She has a melancholy outlook on her work, which “continually exposed her to reminders of loss, secrets gone, history covered over and forgotten. People who would never speak again. The souls like fragrances that linger in the air for a few moments and then disappear forever.”

Theo, Jac’s first love (he was also a patient at the clinic) has invited her to Jersey to hunt down Druid myths in mysterious caves. (His way of working through the tragic death of his wife.) And, it turns out, his family history is linked to Hugo’s stay on Jersey. And, he wants Jac to help him find a notebook that Hugo hid somewhere on the island, in “Lucifer’s Lair.”

Coincidences? Malachai, Jac’s therapist, doesn’t believe in them; neither should the reader if she wants to get through Seduction. As Jac comes to believe: “something more important than her work had brought her to Jersey. . . Destiny or fate or alchemy or the collective unconscious or a mystical secret . . . had brought her here.”

M.J. Rose alternates Jac’s mythic adventures on Jersey with Hugo’s demonic ones—and then introduces a third narrative, from very ancient times.

I’ve made Seduction sound like a stew, I know—and it is. But it was well-written enough, and weird enough, to keep me reading. And for that I have to give M.J. Rose credit. I didn’t give up on Seduction, even though I’m still not sure why it was called that or who, in the end, was actually seduced.