Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book Review - Coming to My Senses, Alyssa Harad

Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride


Alyssa Harad

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Being a Woman; Perfume

Synopsis: Harad shares her passion for perfume and how she evolved as a woman because of it.

Date finished: 17 July 2013

Rating: ****½


You had me at vetiver….

Rarely do I read a book by an author so passionate about her subject as Harad is about perfume. I’m not a perfume wearer myself, but my husband has a deep and abiding love for cologne. We have a friend, Mary, who works at a department store, and much like Harad, studies scent out of an all-abiding love. She can recite the top, middle, and dry-down notes of any perfume in the case—and most produced in the last thirty years. What I’ve absorbed from Mary was very helpful when approaching this book.

I enjoyed the parts of the book where she waxed poetic about perfume, its origins, its notes, and its sway over a person. She was a poet, and her language is so lyrical, so engaging and earnest, I was captivated. She could have been talking about farm machinery, and I would have been enthralled.

At other points in the book, however, she talked about her myriad of gay and questioning friends, and she bored me. Especially in the case of her friend Lynn/Parker who was shedding her female persona and donning a male one. This, of course, mirrors (well, reverse-mirrors) her own gradual change from “a serious, Birkenstock-wearing feminist in her mid-30s” to a softer, more feminine and romantic woman. And frankly, those Lynn/Parker portions of the book made me feel like I was being played, like she was being a Writer and using Metaphor and creating Drama through Juxtaposition. Too heavy-handed. And frankly, I don’t really get into GLBTQ literature. It turned me off.

That aside, when she got down to a discussion of perfume, and detailing the obsession, she was at her best. I especially enjoyed her New York sniffing quests and her perfume-themed bridal shower.

The fascination she has with perfume translates for all obsessed folks. It’s how I feel about reading and books, a more culturally accepted passion. And it’s also how I feel about collecting antique portraits, a passion that makes folks scratch their heads. She, like all coinsurers of oddities, had to let go of the embarrassment of eccentricity. She had to learn to not care what others thought (and sometimes what she herself thought) and just do her thing. And more importantly, she was forced to let go of her perceptions of herself in order to embrace something that brings her great joy. I liked reading about this transformation, because I identified with it.

I took copious notes while reading, mostly because I enjoyed the writing so much. She’s a writer’s writer, and when she’s not overwriting or manipulating (which isn’t often), she’s brilliant. Her voice is similar to Gretchen Rubin’s but with a very sensuous flair.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable read that actually taught me something. But this is not just a book about perfume or obsession, it’s about the need to continually shape one’s identity, even when you think you already know who you are.

I’ll leave you with a section from the opening paragraphs:

Perfume tells a story on the skin. It has a beginning, a middle, and—if it’s good—a long, lingering end. To try a new perfume is to give yourself over to this story for at least an hour or two, sometimes much longer….

     The story a new perfume tells is dangerous—and exciting—because it is so unabashedly intimate. It depends on the heat of your body to give it life, and on your memories and fantasies to give it depth. (page 3)

Would you recommend this to a friend?

You might also enjoy:
Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and Happier at Home.

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