One Journey Down the (Sample) Vials

-       a review of Alyssa Harad’s book ‘Coming To My Senses’

Look around Amazon, your local bookstores, leaf through your favorite magazines, and you will discover that the rarified world of perfume is becoming a hot topic in both fiction and non-fiction. There’s Denyse Beaulieu’s ‘The Perfume Lover’ that describes both a night to remember and the development of a perfume to capture it, M.J. Rose’s ‘The Book of Lost Perfumes’, Denise Hamilton’s novel ‘Damage Control’ (that features some famous perfumes in its story line), and that’s not even counting the books of Frédéric Malle and Jean Claude Ellena who also have their own stories to tell.

Once upon a time, books such as Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez’ ‘Perfumes – the Guide’ and Chandler Burr’s ‘The Emperor of Scent’ were sizzling topics on the perfume boards and blogs, adding to that endlessly fascinating conversation on perfume – how to describe it, how to codify it, how to…understand that most personal and subjective of all art forms.

Even this lowly perfume writer/blogger/nonentity has been approached by three superstars of the perfume world at different times, encouraging me, egging me on and tickling my ego vanity vaunting literary ambition by stating…

“You should really write a book!”

They are all three of them people I respect with something akin to star-struck awe, but I have to say it – let me get in print first with this other thing (which is in a sense also, go figure, connected to…perfume) before I wrestle that fearsome, fragrant beast.

What I am about to say will likely have my perfumista license revoked, my credibility in smoking ruins and my carcass shot at dawn, and yet say it, I must: I have all of three perfume books, not counting a edutainment tome on the use of perfume in Ayurveda (you never know!). I have never read ‘Perfumes – the Guide’ except in excerpt, or Chandler Burr, or Jean Claude Ellena, Roja Dove, Michael Edwards or any other of those Great and Good Indispensibles.

First, since English language bookstores are as rare as unicorns in my part of the world, second, because books about perfume in those stores are unicorns with gilded horns and hooves. They don’t exist. I don’t own a credit card and my PayPal account is my (ludicrous) perfume budget. I can buy perfume. Or I can buy books. For the time being, I buy perfume.

Such was this bathetic state of affairs, until serendipity – and my own debatable notoriety as a perfume writer –  landed me a copy of Alyssa Harad’s ‘Coming To My Senses’.

I didn’t read it at all. I ate it in two days.

I’ve known about Alyssa for quite some time, had been reading her on Perfume Smellin’ Things, had the occasional Twitter exchange. Several phone conversations with my friends in the US mentioned her. So of course I would read it and in one overly enthusiastic moment I even agreed to review it.

Q.E.D.

I’ll say it right out: This is an incredibly charming book. If that sounds like the worst sort of backhanded compliment, I can assure you – it’s not.

In ‘Coming To My Senses’ Alyssa – self-professed feminist academic Geek Gal, describes her own personal journey of self-discovery as it happened through…perfume, from playing with essential oils and attending workshops with an entity known as the Curator all the way through her education as a perfumista – discovering the perfume blogs, acquiring samples hoarded like the guilty treasures they surely are, and opening her perception not just to her sense of smell, but to an entirely new way of perceiving all of life through her senses. We follow her – the world’s most unlikely bride – through planning for her wedding, excursions to New York, her entire journey to…become something better, someone ‘other’, someone somehow richer than she was before, and it all happened through that intangible/tangible, sensory medium of…perfume.

We meet the sneers and semi-embarrassed reactions to her new, all-consuming vice, and how it also becomes a calling card, a way of connecting with others in a way she could never have anticipated.

After reading it, I was totally floored. Floored not because our trajectories as perfume writers were so different, but more than anything because of all the similarities, even despite living on separate continents, cultures and countries.

What I loved most about the book is what I would call…relatability.

Most of the perfume books I’ve read reviews of have tended to lay down the laws of doom – in effect, the writer is saying “This is what I know, and I know infinitely better than you.”

Perfume is a uniquely subjective experience, so I rather doubt the validity of that statement –the books that are full of them, and the writers who are full of themselves.

Alyssa’s book has none of those stentorian, professorial airs. She comes across as entirely likeable, relatable and even endearing – cue an epic meltdown brought on by that ominous phrase ‘foundation garment’. Most of all, this is a book that’s entirely approachable even if you don’t know about perfume. I can practically guarantee – after finishing this story, you will be curious, intrigued, and if you already love perfume, maybe most of all relieved…that somewhere out there is someone else with a similar passion – and she’s every bit as human and as fallible as you!

Alyssa Harad, ‘Coming To My Senses’, is available at major bookstores and at Amazon. Alyssa is also giving a presentation today at the Artisan Fragrance Salon in San Francisco, and another in Brooklyn on July 19th.

Disclosure: A copy of ‘Coming To My Senses’ was made available by Viking.

Photo: my iPhone