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Having a tough relationship with this book

Alyssa Harad

Author Alyssa Harad

I’ve never really cared for writers. I’ve been writing since I was nine so I end up spending a lot of time lumped in with writers, and an awful lot of them set my teeth on edge. They use the cover identity “writer” to dress up what they actually like to do, which is faff around a lot talking about writing, occasionally about words or process, and very occasionally (this usually makes me have to leave the room) grammar.

These sorts of encounters also cause me a lot of self-examining angst, hoping I’m not like that and then of course realizing I am because look, self-examining angst, and oh, it’s a downward shame spiral that is purely a waste of a life.

So despite the fact that I met Alyssa Harad at a Sniffapalooza and she seemed perfectly lovely I approached her book, Coming to my Senses, with caution. Writers faffing about talking about writing are bad enough; writers faffing about talking about writing and perfume might be slightly less excruciating, but stood a fair chance of being more so instead. And while Chandler Burr has turned out some readable books ostensibly about scent but in actuality about the industries of science and perfume production, most perfume books I shell out for (because the public library system in my county is crap) frankly disappoint.

I tell you all this so you know how cautious I felt about Alyssa’s book from the get-go. Now I’m not exactly sure how I feel. Because it turns out that in fact the book is giving my brain, and my feelings, quite a workout.

Alyssa has a rare gift not just for describing perfume but for describing the life that she is living. Reading her book, I don’t just want to smell every perfume she mentions (though I am in severe danger of a blind buy of Guerlain’s Plus que Jamais). I can picture her problematic wedding gown, her reflection in the mirror at the gym, her tone of voice on the phone to her mother. Far from being self-aggrandizing or self-congratulatory, her tone towards herself and her life in the book is one of wonder and honesty tempered with a sense of humor. She is at once a wide-eyed heroine discovering her life enhanced by her own senses, and the gentle but serious reporter of that discovery.

She turns that skill to a topic that cuts close to the bone for me: that of being a post-Ph.D. slightly adrift in life, who becomes a bride and a perfume fanatic and (yes, literally) comes to her senses.

To me there are many words unsaid in it about what it is to have your Ph.D. but not a professorship (or perhaps I’m just reading my own life into it; Dr. Harad seems to have defended her dissertation just a few years after I did mine), but many people must be able to relate to how it is to be Serious and Wear Black, in whatever artistic or scholarly community you happen to inhabit. We also share a fraught relationship with the task of being a bride, something I came to myself at the age of 41 when I married, legally and publicly (and this was unexpected) a man. For those of us for whom the 70s and 80s are not just a “once upon a time” time, the necessary personal re-examination of all ritual and the simultaneous longing to be part of tradition must be something many of us share.

I adore how she depicts herself unwillingly falling in love with perfume, just as seduced as any romance heroine, and with just as predictable a result: she and this perfume stuff, you know they are going to live happily ever after. The journeys she takes along the way – into Bergdorf’s, into deeper relationships with old friends, into the strange and bizarre world of heterosexual bride-dom – are as thrilling and as satisfying as any other novel about a woman discovering her body and her passions and her strengths and herself.

I am deeply, horrifically jealous of the things Alyssa has in the book that I don’t have in my life: a large and rich collection of friends and family, people to talk to, people to sniff with, people to celebrate a life with. That’s what makes my relationship to the book a little problematic. I am jealous in a way that perhaps only a middle-aged woman who got close to these things but doesn’t have them can be. I can’t but admit that the fault is in me, not in the book; because the life depicted therein is as open-armed and friendly as the prose, and if it highlights for me the shortcomings in myself, frankly, that is part of what convinces me that it truly is an extremely good book.

I hope to goodness that this novel finds a nice broad readership outside the perfume community, because it deserves it. Those of us who are perfume freaks will forgive some stilted or stuffy prose to get to the good stuff, stories about the juice we love. But there’s nothing here to forgive and much to delight in, to wallow in, to wiggle one’s toes in.

Life is, after all, what you get, not what you expected or what you planned. Rather than morose moping about this, I prefer writers who dig out the joy in existence and share it with others. Like SF editor Jetse de Vries with his Shine anthology, I like to entertain the idea that the future won’t be worse than today, that in fact things do change for the better. I don’t write about it as much as perhaps I should, probably because I’m not (yet?) the sort of writer, or the sort of person, I aspire to be. But I approve highly of those who do. Growth is possible, relationships are possible, love is possible, and it’s not hokey to discover these things or to read about them.

So, if you like to read, or if you like perfume, or if you’re in that rare Venn diagram section that likes both, and you haven’t already picked up this book, I very much recommend that you do. If you just like to read, I can’t imagine what you’re doing with this blog, but I highly recommend the book to you, too.

Go read it, come on back, and we’ll resume our regularly scheduled Discussing Stuff I Found In My Purse And Sniffed Today type stuff. I’ll be here.

Image is shamelessly swiped from Alyssa Harad’s personal site.

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