Tuesday 27 March 2012

The Magdalene Complex: Review Of "The Perfume Lover" By Denyse Beaulieu

I have been "playing away" with Denyse Beaulieu's new book, "The Perfume Lover". No, really I have. You see, I had been making slow but steady progress through Lisa Chaney's biography of Coco Chanel ("An Intimate Life") - I was up to Page 180 in fact - when a copy of "The Perfume Lover" arrived from Harper Collins. It was accompanied by a sample of Séville à L'Aube, the fragrance inspired by Denyse and the subject of the book, soon to be released commercially by L'Artisan Parfumeur. The perfume was nestling in folds of pink tissue in a tiny black pot in a drawstring velvet pouch. It looked like a miniature bottle of Lanvin Arpège, and there was something so cute and enticing about the whole package of book-plus-scent-featured-in-book, that I parked the Coco Chanel biography and dived straight into "The Perfume Lover" with a sense of eager anticipation. Haha - there's the first seduction scene of the book, right out of the box... : - )

Fragrance fans everywhere are predisposed to like a book about perfume, never mind one apparently named after us all. This is precisely because - as noted in recent blog discussions about perfume writing generally - there simply aren't very many books in print on this subject, period. And some of them are a bit dry and technical and over the head of anyone who doesn't have a background in chemistry. For example, I started to lose the will to live about a third of the way through "The Secret Of Scent" by Luca Turin, and skimmed over the more arcane parts of Chandler Burr's "The Emperor Of Scent".

So I felt that this book of Denyse’s, with its subtitle "A Personal History Of Scent", was going to be the ultimate perfume book I was looking for. A literary lemming, if you will. I knew in advance of reading it that "The Perfume Lover" wove Denyse's autobiography and “scent journey” into an account of the development of a fragrance based on one specific set of her olfactory memories – those of a romantic encounter with a Spanish boy in Seville, set against the backdrop of Easter celebrations in the city.

Several other aspects drew me to "The Perfume Lover": firstly, I have myself had a very enjoyable solo holiday in Seville in the spring, if not at Easter exactly, and can testify to the off-the-scale sensuality of the place. There was a heatwave that year, and the evening temperature still hovered around an ultra-sultry 90F. I should perhaps mention that I was twice Denyse’s age at the time she met Román, and stayed in a budget hostel somewhat removed from Denyse's stylish mid-range hotel. Also, despite stopping out till 2am every night in a fairly receptive frame of mind to any possibilities the night might bring, the only “something-on-skin action” I ended up with was a bad grass allergy from afternoons spent sunbathing in the Maria Luisa park, prompting me to "hotleg it" (quite literally!) down to an out of hours pharmacy in search of "un remedio antihistamino muy rapido".

Another thing which attracted me to the book was the fact that Bertrand Duchaufour was the perfumer who offered to create the scent that would capture Denyse’s passionate clinch with her young beau. He is very much the “nez du jour” at the moment, not least thanks to his recent critically acclaimed trio of scents for Neela Vermeire, so the chance to gain an inside track on his creative MO was too good to pass up.

And then there was the added appeal of Denyse Beaulieu (owner of the highly respected blog Grain de Musc ) being the author. I have not met Denyse, though a number of other bloggers have (eg Katie Puckrik, Persolaise, and Ines & Asali of All I Am A Redhead). Moreover, such is the immediacy of the blogosphere that we fumeheads tend to feel we “know” one another even if we have never met in person. So this perceived familiarity - on however slight and virtual a premise - lent a further piquancy and interest to "The Perfume Lover" for me.

And now that I have got to the end of the book – I am a slow reader, only managing a couple of chapters in the bath a few days a week! - I can declare that I was not disappointed by it. Bemused in places, maybe, wrongfooted, startled, and occasionally shocked - but not disappointed. No, I enjoyed and savoured every page, and would happily read it again some day.

But there is a caveat to come… for though I got the book I wanted, I got a few other books besides, and I think that this attempt to be “all perfume books to all men” may end up alienating all but the hardcore perfumista, though luckily there are still a lot of us in that category. Well, discounting any fumeheads of delicate sensibilities who may be even more perturbed than me by the erotic content, so not so very “hardcore” in that sense! : - ) But I am running ahead of myself….

Yes, I clocked at least four genres in “The Pefume Lover”. The central plank of the book is a factual, “mod-by-mod” (as each version of the scent is known) account of the development of Séville à L'Aube – complete with fascinating and sparky dialogue between Bertrand and Denyse (thoughtfully captured on tape).

These exchanges chart the evolution of their relationship and collaborative style as much as the technical nuts and bolts of the creative process, though that was also amply covered, I felt. There are insights into fragrance materials and their delicate interplay, as well as the way in which Bertrand adds notes – even in the smallest, most subliminal proportions - to ensure that every scented facet of the overall Seville experience is covered off: orange blossom, incense, beeswax, blood, nectar, pollen, tobacco, vanilla, ambient cologne smells of the crowd, and so on.

Another key strand to the book is Denyse’s autobiography, which evokes her early life in Canada and emigration to Paris as a teenager. The scents which punctuated different periods of her life are also tracked, from the Max Factor Green Apple of her childhood to the masculine Van Cleef & Arpels she associated with a student boyfriend, and beyond. It is a “coming of age” or “rite of passage” story in every sense of the term, including Denyse’s maturing interest in fragrance, and I found that theme of the book the next most interesting aspect. It might even count as two. : - )

Now, although it is technically part of the autobiographical genre above, the various references to Denyse’s sexual conquests in “The Perfume Lover” (Román was just the beginning...) put me in mind of an erotic novel, although the action is all based on Denyse’s own experiences. As early as Page 11 there is a clue that readers may be in for tales of more “lovers” than they bargained for...

“I am a scent slut…I have been exploring the world of fragrance in the same way, and for the same reasons, that I’ve travelled erotic territories, spurred on by intellectual curiosity, sensuous appetites and the need to experiment with the full range of identities I could take on.”

Several casual hook ups are mentioned in the book as well as the "main male milestones" in Denyse’s “menfolk journey” (The Tomcat, her ex-husband, and Monsieur, a married lover), and the erotic charge of perfume is never far from her mind. Denyse does in fact concede that she may be suffering from “The Magdalene Complex”, a reference to Mary Magdalene, who was at once a “fallen woman” and a bearer of perfume. Certainly, the alacrity with which our heroine seems to “fall” into bed with comparative strangers conjures up scenes from that saucy series of films from the 70s starring Robin Asquith, “Confessions of a Window Cleaner” (though in the present case, substitute "postman".)

Now I consider myself to be a woman of the world, and have been around the block a bit and whatnot, so I asked myself why the raunchy material in the book troubles me. I thought it was because I feel I know Denyse, and by and large, women don’t tend to discuss the gory details of their sex lives even with their close friends - or such is my experience. Then The Candy Perfume Boy and I discussed this issue at the recent "Leather Event" (of all places!) and he pointed out that we might not want to read this sort of lurid content whether we knew Denyse or not. So I guess it all boils down - or hots up, rather! - to personal taste.

And then the other genre in our smorgasbord is a history of modern perfumery, with lots of titbits and anecdotes about the major international perfume houses, plus accounts of Denyse’s meetings with individual perfumers and other industry notables. There are some water cooler stories in there, a smattering of chemical nomenclature, and a sweeping panorama of social history as it relates to the history of fragrance and its materials.

All this additional information was unexpected, and arguably extraneous to the matter in hand, though personally I found the content of these factual digressions mostly very interesting. My main issue with this ragbag of genres is the choppy and abrupt manner in which they are intertwined. One of many cases in point: one minute we are with Denyse and her childhood friend Sylvie, reminiscing about David Cassidy and the scents of the day such as Love’s Baby Soft, then suddenly we are catapulted back to 4th century Rome with Saint Jerome and his musk-wearing flock.

The jolt between genres pulls you up short, and can make the reader impatient for a resumption of the main plotline about Bertrand Duchaufour at work on Duende, as the prototype for Séville à L'Aube is known in the book. This thematic tendency on Denyse's part to go off on educational tangents even as we keenly await the final mod of the new fragrance, reminds me of how builders working on a major house renovation have an annoying habit of going awol for a fortnight because they have suddenly picked up another job...

In summary, I think this is a book which will appeal hugely to the perfumista crowd, though readers should be prepared for it to flit between every possible style of perfume book they have ever known – in a way that may seem jumpy or even random at times. If you surrender to the elegant and lyrical prose, and follow the story through its meandering yet rewarding chicanes – and if you can step over the odd pair of dropped knickers along the way without flinching – then in my view this is as good a read as Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent (my favourite perfume book to date), and I was sorry to turn the last page and reach the (long and distinguished) list of Acknowledgments...

A short review of Séville à L'Aube follows in the next post!

All photos my own - the ones of Seville are from my holiday there in 1995 (can you tell? : - ) ).


Anonymous said...

Wonderful review Vanessa! I'm looking forward to reading this one very much... having recently read Alyssa's book (which was spectacular), I'm primed for more perfumed literature!

(also recently read The Book of Lost Fragrances--- finally there are some perfume-centric books being published!)

Vanessa said...

Hi Dee,

Thanks, I do hope you enjoy it as much as me. And I am keen to read those other books you mention after I have finished the one about Coco Chanel finally! (I caught up with the film at the weekend, which was also good). Oh, and there's a Denise Hamilton and Ruth Rendell featuring perfume to come after that - you are right that we are increasingly well served on the perfume book front!

Olfactoria's Travels said...

I'm about halfway through the book now, and so far, I agree with you.
I was wondering myself why everybody gets in a huff about the "knickers" aspect of the story (myself included). What irks me most I think, is that she feels the need to point us towards the fact that she is a sensual and attractive woman not once, not twice but about seventy five times in the book (and I'm only at page 150!). She has a PhD for God's sake, she worked with Duchaufour, she knows all of perfumed Paris, we are impressed enough. Why is it so important to overshare? (Freud would no doubt have a lot to say at this point.)
That unrelenting "bare all" mentality induces a cringing reflex in me and I see I'm not alone in any review I've read so far.
It is unfortunate that this aspect seems to be so much of a deterrent and takes up a lot of the conversation about this book, which I otherwise enjoy and find to be well written, engaging and entertaining.

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

Was very interested to get your take on "The Perfume Lover" based on your reading so far; I would have understood if you had wished to avoid sight of the reviews until you had got to the end of the book yourself, though I guess it is not like a classic thriller in that regard, with a denouement that warrants concealment!

Yes, the book is exceptionally well written, with some original and arresting imagery and a lovely lyrical lilt to the prose. Even the juicy bits (in more senses than I care to think, not forgetting the perfume itself!) are well written, so I am thinking Denyse certainly *wouldn't* win any of those "Bad Sex Writing" awards.

Yes, I do see these aspects of the book as "TMI" as well, and Freud would have had his work cut out - or you, indeed, before you became a "resting" psychotherapist. By which of course I don't mean to suggest that your current lifestyle is remotely restful!

: - )

Tara said...

I was very interested to read your review, V, thanks. Can't wait for your take on the perfume. I am dying to experience both!

It sounds like there's so much content in the book it's too bad Denyse wasn't actually given a publishing deal for several different books on the various topics. Her writing is so beautiful and her knowledge so vast, I'm sure she could sustain three, or four.

Vanessa said...

Hi tara,

That's a very good observation - I have no doubt that Denyse could fill multiple books on different subjects - and that would be no bad thing. I think we would as gladly read four separate perfume books as a four-book hotchpotch.

I am sorry I couldn't bring my Seville sample down with me this time. I took it to the PG talk but it was not long after that trip that I noticed there was only about half a ml left, and I haven't dared lay the leaky atomiser sideways or move it since! Should have just dabbed it from the little black pot and not transferred it... There is probably one more application left and then I shall have to write my review pronto. FBW though, no question, so between Denyse the muse and Bertrand the artist, they have done a great job!

Suzanne said...

Wow, I'm very impressed by your very thorough and quite enjoyable-to-read review of the book, Vanessa. I feel like I know exactly what to expect from the book and can thus probably enjoy it even more when I eventually read it myself. I rather like erotic content (no suprise there if you know me well) so I don't imagine that part will be troublesome for me, but I'm glad you gave a heads up about the choppy back-and-forth narrative, as that can be discombobulating if one doesn't expect it.

mals86 said...

OH HAI! I finally got my review of book and fragrance written and posted today, and was thrilled to come here and find this.

I agree, there's a bit of a mashup going on with the book... perfume history, memoir, industry insider info, and of course the centerpiece of the creation of Seville a l'Aube. If I had read more slowly, a chapter at a time, I think I would have found it less disconcerting. Yet it is enjoyable all the same.

lovethescents said...

Thank you so very much for the review. I needed that since I probably won't be able to read the book, sadly. Thank goodness for people like you and your cheat sheets ;-)

I REALLY look forward to your little review on Seville a l'Aube!!

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

I hope I didn't give too much of the action away in my summary...though I don't think so, as "The Perfume Lover" is jam-packed with anecdotes and factual stuff, which I have barely touched on.

: - )

I didn't know about your high threshold for erotica, hehe! I think Tarleisio will be fine with it too - must check to see if she has already reviewed the book indeed - I have consciously been trying not to look at other reviews until my own post had "brewed" in my mind.

And you have hit the nail on the head with "discombobulating" - that is exactly the reaction I had at points, especially when the historical digressions are dropped in at a very interesting juncture in another plotline. Though in fairness, the producers of our TV soap Coronation Street are always breaking up the juicy bits in just that way!

Vanessa said...

Hi Mals86,

I will hop over to check out your review now - it took me a while to read your very interesting rant on blogging, and all the comments that followed! I will not try not to peek at the scent review part of your post until I have committed my own thoughts to paper.

Yes, mishmash, mashup, that is very much how I perceive "The Perfume Lover". I am not sure that reading slowly would have helped with continuity issues...

Indeed I can tell you that in dipping back into the book to find specific things I wanted to comment on or quote, I had a heck of a job finding anything at all!

Vanessa said...

Hi lovethescents,

It is most kind of you to say so, but I am not sure that my review qualifies as a "cheat sheet", haha!

And yes, I must write up my impressions of the perfume soon, before my remaining smidge evaporates... : - )

The Candy Perfume Boy said...

I really enjoyed your take on this book and I wholeheartedly agree that The Perfume Lover is definitely more than one or two books shoved together.

Denyse knows so much about perfume and when she writes about it one cannot help but be captivated, it's just a shame that she didn't come across so well personally. I'm no prude, not buy a long shot but the frank discussions of her sex life were just unnecessary.

Vanessa said...

Hi Candy Perfume Boy,

We are as one in our takes on this book, and it was interesting for me to get your male - and younger - perspective on this "sex talk" malarkey, and to learn that we do both feel squeamish! I think the fact that I feel I "know" Denyse makes me more uncomfortable about the racy content, but it could be that I would be bothered anyway. That's "bothered" rather than "hot and bothered" in a sexual sense, you understand, just as I deemed some of the graphic detail to be "unnecessary", as opposed to making me "come over all unnecessary"! : - )

axum said...

Well now I'm _intrigued_. I hadn't planned to seek out this book, but now I will!

Vanessa said...

Hi axum,

Thanks for stopping by. I will put money on the fact that you will love at least one of these books-within-a-book, even if the others are just along for the ride (no pun intended...). And you may love them all! Just hold on to your hat continuity-wise would be my only tip.

: - )

Natalie said...

Thanks for the review, V. I suspect I will enjoy the reviews of this book more than the book itself. It's always nice to read smart reviews.

As it is, I don't believe it's available yet in the US. But, of course, I will read it. It will queue up behind Alyssa's though. Does anyone know when that one is out?

Undina said...


I enjoyed the first half of your review but then I had to stop: I always try to avoid reviews for books/movies I plan to read/watch. So I'll have to come back and read this post after I get a chance to read the book.

Vanessa said...

Hi Natalie,

Thanks for your kind comment - I am sure you would also enjoy the book very much, glorious genre jumble with added raunch that it is!

I am very curious about Alyssa's book but have had quite a few others on the go, and more piling up, so I simply haven't got round to inquiring about it yet. Is Denyse's book perhaps available on Amazon somewhere in the world? I remember buying "Perfumes: The Guide" from US Amazon a good while before it was officially available on our local one.

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

I quite understand your feelings on holding back from reading reviews, and I did exactly the same with my two posts. I wrote a draft in each case before taking a look at the reviews that had already appeared, and there are some I have yet to read!

Vanessa said...

Found it on UK Amazon - I guess they ship anywhere if I could order from the US site?