Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: "Coming To My Senses" by Alyssa Harad

Are you unique?

I’m not.

As I read through Alyssa Harad’s “Coming To My Senses” over the holiday weekend, I was struck, time and time again, by close trajectories.  For both of us, the exploration of perfume has led to a deeper and much longer-lasting knowledge of what a sensual life is and what femininity is. An understanding, like a gift. 

Harad says that, prior to perfume, she was a “Birkenstock-wearing feminist.” I wasn’t exactly that, but there was a lot I’d lost sight of over time. She was unsure about life after grad school; I had seen both my parents through their last days and badly needed some joy. She stumbled across her first perfume blog by accident. I was taking calls at a consumer-oriented radio talk show and heard that you could buy deeply discounted perfumes on the internet. I googled a name, several blogs appeared, and down the rabbit hole I went.

After that it should all be quite familiar to those of us who are already perfumistas or fans or obsessives or whatever label you’d like to use. Here are the Big Blogs — NST and PST; BdJ and Perfume Posse. Looking around the room I see March, and Victoria and Marina and Ida — hi, y’all! And I’m guessing about the perfumes she’s discussing: is that Chergui? Lonestar Memories? Avignon? Here is the culture on perfume on the internet: the abbreviations, the swapping, the gifts, the decant sellers and splits pages; “the Perfumista Black Market.” 

One of her early discoveries concerns the reaction of friends when you tell them you’ve become deeply interested in perfume. “Perfume? Really?” And that quizzical look, the one that says, “Should I start being disappointed in you now?”

Since Coco Chanel, the mainstream perfume industry has ridden fashion like a remora rides a shark.  Recent converts to perfume are forced to pay for this with shame. Shame at collecting much more than you’ll ever use. Shame at the frivolity and the expense. Shame at your unseemly attraction. Almost no one, Harad points out, looks at a wine, book or art collection this way. 

Perfume wears close to the  psyche. This beautifully written book is a story of a life reclaimed, a maturity attained by making peace with femininity and with traditions of an earlier time. More than that, it’s a guide to bravery: enough to insist on a little glamour. Here’s how the beauty of the fragrance you’re wearing sinks in and becomes, well, you. Here’s how this little habit, which you might have once scoffed at, changes everything.

“It didn’t stop with smells,” she says near the end. “Flavors had a new clarity and complexity. I invented new recipes with familiar ingredients and sought out spices and fruits I’d never tasted. I paused to enjoy the silky cool of the flour between my fingers….The world had more color and more contrast.”

It does for me, too. 

Full disclosure time: “Coming To My Senses” was sent to me by the publisher for review.

Available in all the usual places. The ISBN is 978-0-670-02361-5.

Photo by Pat Hall Borow. All rights reserved.