Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent (Denyse Beaulieu)

 --The blurb--
"What if the most beautiful night in your life inspired a fragrance? Denyse Beaulieu is a [...] fragrance writer; it is her world, her love, her life. When she was growing up, perfume was forbidden in her house, spurring a childhood curiosity that went on to become a[...] passion. It is this passion she pursued all the way to Paris, where she now lives, and entered the secretive world of the perfume industry. But little did she know that it would lead her to achieve a fragrance lover’s wildest dream …When Denyse tells a famous perfumer of a [...] night spent in Seville under an orange tree in full blossom, wrapped in the arms of a beautiful young man, the story stirs his imagination and together they create a scent that captures the essence of that night. This is the story of that perfume. As the unique creative collaboration unfolds, the perfume-in-progress conjures intimate memories, leading Beaulieu to make sense of her life through scents. Throughout, she weaves the [...] history of perfumery into her personal journey [...]: the masters and the masterpieces; the myths and the myth-busting, down to the molecular mysteries that weld our flesh to flowers…[...]Your world will never smell the same."

--The review-- 
I always enjoy receiving books for review, but I especially enjoy receiving titles that are relevant to the multiple audiences of my very different blogs (and not only so that I can cross-post the review!), as such books quite frequently offer insights "behind the scenes" of the world we often get only limited glimpses of - in this case, the complex world of perfumery. Beaulieu's privileged position as perfume writer and general expert (she teaches courses on perfume in institutes in London and Paris) means that we are allowed access to this world at last, in a candid yet approachable fashion.

But there is more to it than this. This beautifully-presented edition of The Perfume Lover, which came wrapped in black tissue and pink ribbon, and with a sample of the perfume created by Beaulieu in the book, is a truly interdisciplinary adventure. Not only does Beaulieu effortlessly blend the history of perfume with her own selective biography, she also takes us on a rich journey through religion, art, literature, and etymology. By combining this with perfumers' secrets of the industry and the mechanics of making a perfume, we almost feel like she is doing the latter herself in book form as she mixes all of these 'notes' to make a unified whole.

We are certainly not disappointed by the amount or quality of insider information that Beaulieu gives us: we are let into how far celebrities are really involved in creating the scents bearing their names (answer: it varies!), told which perfumes are favoured by luminaries such as Michael Jackson (answer: Bal à Versailles), and told why you'll never find a bad review of a perfume in a magazine or newspaper (answer: you'll have to read The Perfume Lover to find out). All of this sets us up for an intriguing read - but none of it is the main part of the story.

Throughout the book we are given tantalising views not only of the laboriousness of the perfume-making process (hundreds of formulae can be conducted in the creation of just one perfume, in the hope of hitting on the right combination) but also into the perfume that Denyse herself created, leaving us wondering what the perfume (whose sample is given with the book) will finally be like when we sprinkle it on our skins. When I finally did, I can't pretend it was completely as I had expected, and obviously reactions, likes, and dislikes will vary from person to person. But there is certainly a thrill to be had not only in knowing that you're testing a perfume that's not due out for another 6 months (it will be released by L'Artisan Parfumeur in the autumn), but also that you know the entire story and process behind it, in intimate detail.

This brings us to the only negative that I detected in this book. While Beaulieu is a master of beautiful description and detail, this does at time lead to too much information regarding her own sex life and what I perceive to be her personal levels of promiscuity (do readers really need to know that as a young girl she practised fellatio techniques on ice cream cones?!). Indeed, for someone who is clearly intelligent and talented, this promiscuity is disappointing; while perfume clearly has a sensual aspect, and Beaulieu is not wrong to emphasise this in the book, in some aspects of this she does take it too far for my liking.

This also means that despite her literary talents I am unlikely to read any more of the books that Beaulieu has worked on as a translator. I mention this because as a translator myself I wouldn't ever associate my name with anything I would be ashamed of or was contrary to my morals and interests. People see that a translator is associated with a work and it can influence their views on that person, even if they did not write it. With empty-headed chick lit on offer (mostly in French, but also in English) and a book about sex games and the history of sexuality (available in French and in English) among Beaulieu's translation repertoire, I somehow have the feeling that our interests don't coincide much, and it therefore doesn't endear me to her in terms of what she may put out in future. This is a great shame, as The Perfume Lover itself makes for an enjoyable and fascinating read. I'll therefore be very interested to see what Beaulieu has waiting in the wings for us.

This review has been cross-posted to Bianca's Book Blog.

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