As the New York Times perfume critic, Chandler Burr was able to spend a year behind the scenes watching two perfume firsts unfold. First, Sarah Jessica Parker wanted to be involved in creating her own perfume, far more than most celebrities or brands that get their names put on a perfume. Second, the famous perfumer Jean Claude Ellena was about to make his first perfume as the head perfumer at Hermès. Both had many reasons for wanting to get their perfume just right and this book is one of the first looks at how perfumers go about designing the perfect scent.
Well, the hype about how interesting it would be to see into the perfume industry was (surprisingly!) not overstated. It was very cool to learn how much making a perfume is both an art and a science. The culture is rich with tradition and the people involved in the industry had funny, ironic, insightful, and though-provoking comments about the way the perfume industry functions. As an outsider, I liked that the author was also an outsider. I think hearing everything from his perspective, as someone who enthuses about scent rather than obsessing over it, made the story easier to relate to. At the same time, it was clear that time spent working with perfumers had rubbed off on the author, who described scents and places in vivid detail.
For the most part though, I didn’t think the author lived up to his subject. I would have loved to get to know all the characters he introduced in connection to the two stories. Instead, so many people were introduced and so little back-story was provided for any of them, that they all quickly blurred together. The perfume industry was an enthralling subject all by itself, but like the characters, the story arc connecting the chapters often disappeared in broader comments on the perfume industry. Or worse still, the story got buried under the author’s lists of chemical components; pedigrees of who made which perfume; or snobbish rants about perfumes the author didn’t like.
Finally, his descriptions deserve a paragraph to themselves. Some were wonderful and he did do a good job describing scents. But others were obscure (such as comparisons to particular artists or architects); some were bizarre (a person described as having “a supple character”); and others were potentially offensive ( a perfume described as being “as self-assured and direct as the gaze of an African woman” or a person who was like a “slightly sleepy Jewish grizzly bear”). Let me just ask, what on earth is a supple character? And how is comparing someone to a Jewish grizzly bear supposed to be different from a comparison to just a grizzly bear?
So since that blows my three paragraph limit all to pieces, I’ll wrap up. The bottom line is that this book covered an incredibly interesting topic and while I was disappointed in the way it was written, I liked the book and would still recommend it. I just needed to rant a little about it first :)This review first published on Doing Dewey.