The Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent
By: Denyse Beaulieu
Source: Advanced Reading Copy courtesy of the publisher & GoodReads First Reads programme
What if the most beautiful night in your life inspired a perfume? When Denyse Beaulieu was growing up in Montreal, perfume was forbidden in her house, spurring a childhood curiosity that became an intellectual and sensual passion. She pursued this passion to Paris, where she now lives, becoming a respected fragrance writer. But little did she know that it would also lead her to achieve a perfume lover’s wildest dream.
When Denyse tells a famous perfumer of a sensual 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. As their unique collaboration unfolds, the perfume-in-progress conjures intimate memories, leading Beaulieu to make sense of her life through scent—a sort of Eat, Pray, Love of fragrance. Throughout the book, she weaves the history of perfumery into her personal journey, evoking the masters and the masterpieces, the myths and the myth-busting, down to the molecular mysteries that meld our flesh to flowers.
The Perfume Lover is an enticing account of the complexity of composing a fragrance, and a uniquely candid insider’s view into the world and history of fragrance.
I kindly received an advanced reading copy of this novel from Penguin Canada through GoodReads. I don’t read a lot of memoirs or nonfiction these days, nor is perfume a major feature of my everyday life (it’s there, I use them every now and then but beyond that I don’t know much about it), but the premise of this book was interesting.
This book is part of the Books on France Reading Challenge 2013 that I am participating in.
The Perfume Lover provides a fascinating account about the history of perfume: how it became popular in early modern/modern Europe, the trends, how the present-day manufacturing of the notable brand names work. As a person who knows next to nothing about perfume, I learned a lot from the historical and business material; I never thought that there was quite an intricate science behind it, how much detail and accuracy is involved in the crafting of scents. I’m also surprised that there’s this whole culture behind perfume too, right down to the odder aspects of the product. For example, I remember being completely revolted by the rumoured basis for Lady Gaga’s perfume back in 2011; turns out it’s not a new thing in the perfume world (chapter 22).
The memoir also works as a bit of a travelogue; the author is based in Paris and she does write a little bit about her everyday life in the City of Lights as she works with Bertrand Duchaufour to create a new perfume. The descriptions of Seville, Spain was also interesting to read particularly as I’ve never been to that part of the country.
However, I found the other personal aspects of her life that she included in this memoir not as interesting or as compelling. Unlike her presentation of the history of perfume and the culture around it, her personal stories are a little out of chronological order and the moments were never clear enough for me to understand why she’s linking it to her story of creating this perfume (aside from the Seville story and her Spanish lover, which is directly related to the perfume, and her career in journalism and her experiences in the perfume industry/culture). It felt random and out of place as opposed to adding to the narrative.
Overall, I enjoyed The Perfume Lover and its glimpse into the complicated and detailed world of perfume. It’s an eye-opening account that has left me with a new impression on perfume. It’s worth checking out if you’re into beauty products or cultural history.