Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a good smell. Whether damp soil, lilies, new shoe leather, inland water, church incense, a clean shirt or old books, almost nothing produces as visceral a reaction as scent. It conjures memory, desire, and potential; a lovely fragrance makes everything nicer, an unpleasant odor makes everything worse. So it’s no surprise I was curious to read Perfumes: A Guide.
At first glance, the book has an encouraging heft, with perfume reviews from page 51 to 366. I was slightly put off by the lack of images, but after reading a few random reviews I discovered this volume had something much better: A sense of humour. Within the first fifteen minutes of leafing through this book, I laughed out loud no less than five times. The authors are clever, imaginative, and in possession of a biting wit. Whether I recognized (or cared about) a particular subject or not, I found myself devouring every review as though I was reading a collection of short stories.
I was also pleased to find the ratings economically democratic. The book includes everything from the cheapest drugstore colognes to the most exclusive high-end fragrances, and it was nice to discover they were equally exposed to praise or censure. In a favourable review of David Beckham’s Instinct, Sanchez declares that “snobbery in perfumery is pointless,” and Turin gives Cacharel’s LouLou (a high school favourite) five stars; “Do not be misled by the fact that LouLou, when found, is likely to be cheap. This is one of the greats.” Lady Stetson also gets top marks. On the opposite side, Chanel’s Allure Homme Sport is described as “being stuck in an elevator for twelve hours with a tax accountant,” and their Gardenia as a “loud, airport-toilet floral.” Ha.
One of my favourite pans in the book is for Givenchy’s Amarige: “We nearly gave it four stars… for Amarige is unmissable, unmistakable, and unforgettable. However, it is also truly loathsome…and at all times incompatible with others’ enjoyment of food, music, sex, and travel.” Of course the first thing I did was run out to smell it. (I was skeptical; I had a friend who wore another Givenchy scent – Organza, I think – and it was divine.) I was both horrified and amused to find this was true: eau de Tire Fire!
The volume does have some problems. First, there is no master index, only an index of Star Ratings (lists of perfumes are arranged according to the authors’ approval of them). Reviews in the book appear alphabetically, so they aren’t hard to find if you know exactly what you’re looking for, but if you don’t, you’ll spend a lot of time leafing back and forth. (Who knew Tom Ford’s name gets top billing in his perfumes?) Second, the writers tend to get very caught up in esoteric description at the expense of detail.
Some scents are highly rated but it would be nice to know more about what exactly makes them so – in a non-subjective sense (top- and base-notes). After smelling Beyond Love, a highly rated tuberose by Kilian, I was instantly reminded of the Anais Anais my sister wore in high school. How disappointing to find that, although the latter was included in the book, there was no mention of the florals it encompassed and I had to consult another book to see if my nose was right. This is also problematic if you are drawn to a certain type of scent, for example, chypres, or amber Orientals. As the reviews are not grouped in any scent-comprehensive way, using this guide to find a scent that might be right for you is hit-or-miss venture.
That said, however, the journey is a whole lot of fun.