Outside of department stores, where we’re unwillingly spritzed by glamorous women wearing white lab coats, does anyone still wear perfume?
My doctor’s office posts a sign saying to come back another day if you’re wearing a scent. A hospital in Minnesota, a city hall in Oklahoma and all municipal employees of Portland, Ore., are officially fragrance-free. Earlier this year, New Hampshire state Rep. Michele Packham proposed a bill that would prohibit state workers from wearing perfume to the office. “Many people have violent reactions to strong scents,” she told a reporter.
On that, Alyssa Harad would agree, but in a totally different context. Harad’s violent reaction is ecstasy. Upon opening a vial of perfume with “the raw sweetness of wine and wild honey,” her heartbeat accelerates, her cheeks flush, her eyes brighten. “I looked, and felt, like a 15-year-old girl waiting for the phone to ring. I wanted someone to smell what I had smelled, and I wanted that person to smell it on my skin.”
The biggest flaw in Harad’s memoir, Coming To My Senses, is that it’s not scratch-and-sniff. Like Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, we’ll have what she’s having.
As it is, we’ll have to take her word for it, that there are aromas that, when applied to pulse points and allowed to mature and develop, will change your mind about perfume, that will, in fact, change your life. That’s what happened to Harad, a self-described Birkenstock-wearing feminist who stumbled into an aromatic fantasy world on the Internet.
From blogs like “Now Smell This” and websites like Perfumeoflife.org, she learned about the “notes” of a scent, how perfume isn’t just what you dab on your wrist, but the development of the scent, in stages, over many hours. You think wine is complicated? You won’t, after learning about perfume.
It’s not just your mother’s perfume out there, nor is it all Joy and Scandal, or Jovan and Jean Nate. Forget all that. Florals and musk are only the beginning. There are perfumes that smell of things like whiskey, leather and sweat. To obtain them, all you need is the Internet, a credit card and a mailing address. And people around you with no allergies.
The English language, Harad tells us, has no words to describe scents; adjectives that belong to sight and touch are borrowed to illustrate perfume. Even so, Harad does a wonderful job making perfume seem a desirable thing, a kind of “necessary sweetness” in a hard world.
“For many years, I thought the answer to my troubles — and maybe the troubles of the world, too — was vigilance and hard work. I thought I understood frivolous, treacherous things like perfume and the kind of people who loved them. I thought I knew who I was, what I had to do, and what was coming next. But I was wrong about all of it — wonderfully, gloriously wrong,” she writes.
Her journey takes her not only through the blogosphere, but to a smelling salon, where people gather to analyze and appreciate the molecules of scent; to perfume laboratories in Texas and fragrance showroooms in New York; and eventually, to make vows under an arbor, dabbed with not one perfume, but two. It takes her on a journey of pleasure.
It’s an engaging story that drags only when Harad veers wildly off topic, as when she digresses into family history and a sex-changing friend. There’s also a major irritant: the author’s use of an initial, “V,” throughout the story in place of her fiancé’s name. It’s a literary speedbump that no editor should ever allow. (Plus, what anonymity she wished to give him is destroyed when she thanks V., by name, on the acknowledgements page, making me want to throw the book at the editor who OKed this.)
Similar to Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses, Harad seeks to persuade us to live better by deeper engagement with the tools of our body. But there’s more. She invites us to step away from what we think we prefer, to explore strange recesses.
It’s a terrific message for anyone, except for all that perfume. For people with allergies, or simply an aversion to musk, it’s rough water she asks us to enter. But if you like any smell at all — vanilla or tobacco, or peaches or cedar — Harad promises that somewhere out there there’s a signature scent for you. Just not at the drug-store counter. Coming to My Senses will teach you how to find it. But there’s danger: If you start wearing perfume, you might have to find another job. B- —Jennifer Graham