Sunday, 28 April 2013

Alyssa Harad: 'Coming To My Senses' - A Fragrant Bildungsroman

The best kind of book is one which you simply don't want to end.  Which, when you realise you have just thirty pages to go - or less, if you have forgotten to factor in the acknowledgements - makes you start to slow down and savour every sentence, or even reread entire paragraphs to postpone the inevitable moment when you set the bookmark to one side and close the cover for the last time.

'The Stranger in the Mirror' by Jane Shilling - a poignant and funny memoir about encroaching middle age - was a book which had that effect on me lately.  In the perfume sphere, Chandler Burr's 'The Perfect Scent' was another.  And now Alyssa Harad's 'Coming to My Senses' completes the trio.  So, given my keen enjoyment of this book, you may be surprised to learn that it has taken me at least six months to finish it.  This is because the place I most like to read is in the bath.  However - as some long-suffering readers already know - the vagaries of my hot water system mean that I have only managed a proper soak once every six weeks or so, and my reading rate has plummeted accordingly.  This also explains why there has been a fair bit of rereading of 'Coming to My Senses' well before the end.  Pretty much every time I settled down in the bath I had to go back 20 pages or more to remind myself where I was up to.  And as I haven't read the beginning of the book since last October or thereabouts, I am a bit sketchy about some of the details, hence why I have deliberately not used the word 'review' in the title of this post.  I must say, however, that it is a tribute to the readability of 'Coming to My Senses' that you could read any random section again and again and enjoy it just as much each time - for the understated lyricism of the language as much as the story of Alyssa's 'perfume journey', or the preparations for her wedding, which forms the climactic centrepiece of the book.


Yes, this is more of a passionate plug for the book, a heartfelt plea to readers to just go buy it.  I can't remember the exact sequence of events (and it would spoil things to reveal too much anyway), but I do distinctly remember that I relished every word.  For in telling the story of her burgeoning interest in fragrance - of how she fell down the rabbit hole, as we might say - Alyssa is also articulating the stories of so many of us.  The lurking on perfume blogs in thrall to the beguiling writing of Robin, Marina, Victoria et al, the heightened sensibility to ambient scents, the sniffing forays in upmarket department stores (testing JAR Parfums and my beloved and sadly defunct Plus Que Jamais!), the tentative sharing of her interest with friends, the sample packages winging across the globe, the fellowship of Sniffapalooza, the epiphanies, the transformative joy of a scent wardrobe with its infinite possibilities of toggling between selves, the dogged search for a bottle of vintage perfume containing the fragrant quintessence of her mother...There are so many vignettes and little touches which chime with the perfumista reader, though I feel sure the book will have more mainstream appeal.

Plus Que Jamais - missing you more than ever

And while not all of us have been married, there is much about Alyssa's 'coming of age' story - that runs in a seamless parallel to her olfactory awakening - to which the reader can relate.  For there is an endearing girl-next-door quality to Alyssa, with her wayward hair and curvaceous figure that needs to be corralled by 'serious underwear' on her wedding day.  Like us, Alyssa admits in the book to being a bit starstruck by the 'grande dames' bloggers, a number of whom have cameo appearances in the book (including that dainty duo, Victoria and Marina of Boisdejasmin and Perfume Smelling Things).  Since then, Alyssa has gone on to clock up guest writing credits on PST, NST and in magazines such as Marie Claire.  With the release of 'Coming to My Senses' Alyssa puts the lid on her own 'grande dame' status, all the while remaining the friendly and accessible figure she was before her publishing fame.

For it sums up the warm inclusivity of our perfume community that this eloquent conjurer of a perfumed life is still just a mouse click away from liking your photo on Facebook.

Photo of Guerlain Plus Que Jamais from


Kafka said...

It sounds wonderful! Every part of it, from the readability to the parallel experiences, to the perfume adventures... absolutely wonderful. A huge Thank You for bringing this to my/our attention, Vanessa.

Vanessa said...

Hi Kafka,

I guarantee you would love this. We all would, plus quite a few of our friends, who may only harbour a 'normal' level of interest in perfume, yet appreciate observational humour and evocative, sensuous language wherever it manifests itself. Plus they may even become inducted into the faith by this book, as several of Alyssa's friends were by her sample sharing. I am certainly going to buy it for a few of mine in that fervent hope.

And meanwhile I shall observe a short period of mourning before I can contemplate the next read, fragrant or otherwise...

Tara said...

This book has been at the back of mind since it came out but you make it sound such a great read I shall move it up my reading list. I take it that not naming the perfumes in the book didn't spoil your enjoyment?

I hope you write your own memoir one day, V. The line "the transformative joy of a scent wardrobe with its infinite possibilities of toggling between selves" says it all for me.

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

You raise a very good point, and one with which I wrestled a bit as I was reading the book. At the time I did feel a bit frustrated about the non-naming of certain perfumes that clearly played a key role in Alyssa's life, not least her famed 'honey perfume'. On another level, I could understand why she didn't want the names to be a distraction, and she does helpfully 'out' a lot of them on her blog!

When I saw that I had in fact guessed some of the featured scents correctly, I was retrospectively quite pleased we had been made to guess. It was a bit like those 'Mystery Scent' projects by Scent-and-Sensibility perfumes, but on a mass scale!

If she had never revealed their identity, I might have had to email her and ask, as I don't think I could have contained my curiosity!

Thanks for the kind comment about my writing - if I ever did tackle a memoir I think it would end up being bonkerised. I am not sure I have the discipline to write a book, mind you, but am full of awe for those who do, including my brother now of course!

The Smelly Vagabond said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention, it sounds like a really lovely read for the summer. Thankfully I don't suffer from just reading only when I'm in the bath. Even if I did, I take baths so often that I'm sure I'd finish reading the book in no time at all.

I think being able to play 'guess-the-perfume' would be so much fun, although like you, I'd want to know if I got them right!

Jordan River said...

I started this early one morning thinking it may be too girly for me. I did not make it to work that day as I became so involved in the story. I loved the part when Alyssa had absorbed so much knowledge that the man hosting the get-together gave her the floor and she realised that she had become....(I am not a plot spoiler). Immensely enjoyable, readable and full of knowledge. Alyssa was recently in San Fran and she wore some flowers in her hair; in fact she made and wore a crown of fragrant flowers in her hair. What a cool woman. I would see the movie, after she directs and produces it!

Vanessa said...

Hi Joshua (TSV),

Sounds like your reading - and hot water delivery - rates are both well up on mine! You would romp through this one, I am sure.

Yes, I came to terms with the nameless perfumes in the end, and there is indeed fun to be had in guessing!

Vanessa said...

Hi Jordan,

Thanks for dropping by, and I have to ask, how did you explain your absence from work? I am assuming you are self-employed and were able to make the time up later. ;-) I am sure Alyssa would share the Government's concern at the thought of national productivity nosediving due to the unputdownable nature of her book!

Yes, that was a touching scene quite early on in the book - the one where she clicks with that Curator fellow.

How great that you got to meet Alyssa - I infer you live in that neck of the woods? I recall her posting a picture of a floral garland on Facebook in fact.

Alyssa was joking about how she was now qualified to put pretty much anything together with florist wire and tape - '(cars, broken hearts, failing hard drives, bring 'em on!)', to which I replied: '...that stuff would probably reboot my satnav too.'

That was around Easter time - what fun that you saw her wearing the actual crown!

Martha said...

I, too, loved _Coming to my Senses_. I haven't yet blogged about it, because I failed to satisfactorily express my reaction to it; I'm envious that you've described it so perfectly.

And I, too, consider it a perfect bath book. Therefore, I'm highly annoyed that I bought the e-book version. Do Kindle and the other e-reader people understand the vital importance of coming up with the water resistant version? I don't need to be able to read while underwater in scuba gear, but I do need something that will survive the thirty seconds of "Ack!", retrieval, and shaking-off. And the washing-off of the bath oil.

I'm just saying. While I wait for that technological advance, I may just need to buy it again, in paper.

Ines said...

It was a thoroughly enjoyable read for me. :)
I agree, there are so many things in that book each of us can relate to and you just wish you could go on reading it.

Well, if you don't exactly remember the beginning, you know what to do! (start over) ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Martha,

I feel sure you would have done the book perfect justice in a review - you have a most felicitous way with words, even when 'rambling' or otherwise (occasionally, allegedly) stuck for them!

A water resistant Kindle is indeed a compellingly good business idea. They can sort the iPhone while they are at it.

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines,

I am glad you enjoyed this book too - I cannot imagine any fumehead to whom it would not appeal, precisely because it is also, in many ways, 'our story'.

And absolutely, a reread seems on the cards some time!

Natalie said...

I agree, wonderful book. Alyssa writes beautifully.

Vanessa said...

Hi Natalie,

Another happy, transported reader!

Ari Weinberg said...

I have an autographed copy (the BEST autograph- it says "To Ari, with admiration and gratitude for your humor and open heart") and it is seriously one of my treasures. I write very briskly, in keeping with my short attention span, and I find Alyssa's gentler, leisurely prose just enchanting. I hope that more people will pick it up as a result of your lovely review, Vanessa!

Vanessa said...

Hi Ari,

How absolutely thrilling to have not just an autographed copy, but one actually *dedicated* to you and your writing! I can completely understand that it is one of your treasures.

And I do so agree with you about Alyssa's leisurely prose - languid, even - or dreamy. Mesmerising for sure.

Dionne said...

I loved this book. So much that after I requested that our library acquire the book (because of me, they're developing quite the perfume book selection...) and I took it out, I still turned around and bought my own copy. My only real criticism is that I wanted more. More details! What happened to the natural sniffing group? And her wedding dress?

One of the things I'm planning on doing in the next few months is having some non-perfumista friends read it and finding out what they think. I suspect that 1) Alyssa's writing is accessible outside our little crowd and 2) they'll get my obsession more. Not that they're not supportive, but there is some bemusement mixed in with it.

Vanessa said...

Hi Dionne,

I like the thought of your library having a collection of perfume books thanks to your serial borrowing! I hope other library users discover them too. And I can quite understand why you felt you needed your own copy in the end.

I feel sure the book will appeal to a wider audience - and, as you hope, that any friends of ours who do read it will 'get' our hobby that bit more, and maybe even have their own epiphany. Or feel less bemused at least!

Carole said...

Hi, I just noticed this review and wondered if you would like to link it in to the current monthly collection of books that people loved on Carole's Chatter. This is the link There are already over 25 books linked in that you might be interested in. It would be great if you came on over. Cheers

Vanessa said...

Hi Carole,

Sorry for the delay in replying - that sounds like a lovely idea. Will hop over when I have a minute - rush work deadline at the moment!