Scents and sensibility
BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, July 2012
Woodsy and seductive, with a hint of spice, Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride offers a luscious immersion in the world of perfume obsession. But what makes this memoir so appealing are its deeper notes, the ones that linger on after reading: the story of a how a no-nonsense, underemployed English Ph.D., who usually dresses like “an unmade bed,” discovers the pleasures of femininity and her own senses through an affair with fragrance.
Stumbling onto the world of perfume blogs late one night, Alyssa Harad discovers a new and fascinating world of scent and language; she is as seduced by the perfumes as by the challenge of describing them. Samples start arriving in the mail, and Harad begins to develop a “vocabulary of scents” to describe the “scratchy, dirty richness” of patchouli or the “drugged, dreamy” sensation of jasmine. One afternoon, a magical transformation occurs: A honeyed wine fragrance inspires her to dump the sweats, and put on earrings and lipstick—the freelance writer as Cinderella!
The elegance of Harad’s narrative comes as much from what it doesn’t say as what it does. Unlike many contemporary memoirs, Coming to My Senses contains no trauma, no bad childhood and no exposé of her relationship with boyfriend V. (she mentions postponing their wedding, but we never learn exactly why). Such reticence is refreshing, even ladylike, and after all, there is so much to say about the scents of saffron and vetiver, the “aunties” back home in Boise and the unexpected kindness of Bergdorf’s salespeople. We never miss the trauma. In fact, this memoir performs a kind of inspirational function: I’m wearing a blend of gardenia and cherry blossom as I write this. Now if I could just get out of these yoga pants.