Book review: Coming to my Senses by Alyssa Harad
Something interesting is happening. Passionate perfume lovers are getting themselves into print.
For some years now the internet has provided an unprecedented opportunity for perfume consumers to exchange ideas and perfumes, to buy and sell, to talk, listen and dream together. But books about perfume tended in the past to be about the history and production of perfume, rather than its consumption. The love, strength and inspiration that perfume provides us on a daily basis was not a subject for a book because there was no community to read it. And now there is.
You will recognise Alyssa Harad even if you have not read any of her posts on Now Smell This or Perfume Smellin’ Things because she is one of us. Many of us know the sensation of ‘falling down the perfume rabbit hole’. Perhaps we wore perfume in our youth, or our mothers did, but it was just a casual thing. Then something happens that makes us pause and smell again. The ground gives way and we fall down a rabbit hole of deep and abiding love of perfume.
Alyssa’s book is essentially about this. It is her own perfume story told with candour, passion and wit. ‘Perfume tells a story on the skin’, she writes in her opening sentence. She became seriously interested in perfume not actually through perfume itself but by stumbling accidentally on her first perfume blog and noticing the vivid prose she found there, ‘written simply for the joy of it’. After that, she says, she was hooked on the stories people told about themselves and what perfume meant to them.
Alyssa had been a ‘Birkenstock-wearing feminist’ who preferred her ‘chocolate bitter dark and her literature even darker’, and it embarrassed her to discover that perfume made her happy. Her dilemma, and it is surely a familiar one, is that perfume for her had signified conformity to unrealizable feminine ideals, ideals she had rejected as a young woman. When perfume-induced happiness crept into her life unexpectedly, it forced her to ask some questions about herself. ‘Who am I? What do I want?’
Sound familiar? Then this is a book for you.
The ‘who am I’ question might have been less urgent had not Alyssa and her partner of ten years decided to get married. Her perfume explorations coincided with deciding what sort of ‘bride’ she would be and, and this journey gives momentum to the much of the book. Along the way are some magnificent ‘set piece’ descriptions: her attendance at sessions run by a natural perfumery laboratory in Austin, Texas; a hilarious visit to Bergdorf’s in New York to sniff perfume; some nerve-wracking shopping for bridal wear; and a ‘bridal shower’ held for her by her mother and her mother’s friends – ‘the aunts’ – just before her wedding.
To my mind this shower, more than the wedding, is the climax of the book. Alyssa had asked the aunts to contribute towards gifts of perfume, and invited them to share their own perfume stories. I won’t say any more about this gorgeous-sounding event – you just have to read about it for yourself.
The final chapter brings us back to Alyssa’s mother, who had mostly been in the background until then. We hear Alyssa’s mother’s perfume story (her signature had been Rochas’ Femme, pre-reformulation). That led me to reflect that so often the very first person to tell us a story with their perfume is our mother.
Coming to My Senses is not a technical book, or a history of perfume, or a book about the perfume industry, although there are snippets of those things for the non-perfume wearing reader. Generally Alyssa avoids mentioning the names of the perfumes she discusses, except where it is crucial to the story, so that she can emphasise the emotions they conjure for herself and those around her. Once the book is published we can hop on to Alyssa’s website – http://www.alyssaharad.com – to get the detail.
There is a delicious intimacy about this book. In telling her story Alyssa allows the stories of others to flow into hers. Perfume is all about intimacy, and sharing, after all. I’ve been calling the author ‘Alyssa’, even though academic detachment normally forbids it, because I feel I know her. I don’t – and yet in a small way I feel I do. I have certainly shared aspects of Alyssa’s perfume story and I suspect readers of this blog will have too.
My thanks to Danielle for the chance to review Coming to My Senses. The book will be published on July 5* and you can pre-order from Amazon. So look, put your perfume purchases on hold and go grab a copy. It will cost you much less than that bottle of Le Temps d’une Fete you have been eyeing off, and make you just as happy.
*date changed by publisher (editor update).