Friday, March 07, 2008


John Lanchester's appealing essay in this week's New Yorker persuades me it would be well worth getting hold of a copy of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez's Perfumes: The Guide. Here are Lanchester's final paragraphs:
There are fashions in smell, too, and the heavy-duty perfumes of the nineteen-eighties, in particular, come in for a hard time from Turin and Sanchez. They give some of these perfumes a rating of five out of five, while at the same time more or less begging the reader not to buy them. Opium is “unquestionably one of the greatest fragrances of all time,” Turin writes. “Yet I would hate it if anyone wore it near me today.”

That, it turns out, is relatively mild, as their criticisms go. Consider 212, from Carolina Herrera: “Like getting lemon juice in a paper cut.” Amarige, from Givenchy? “If you are reading this because it is your darling fragrance, please wear it at home exclusively, and tape the windows shut.” Heiress? “Hilariously vile 50/50 mix of cheap shampoo and canned peaches.” Princess? “Stupid name, pink perfume, heart shaped bottle, little crown on top. I half expected it to be really great just to spite me. But no, it’s probably the most repulsively cloying thing on the market today.” Hugo, the men’s cologne from Hugo Boss? “Dull but competent lavender-oakmoss thing, suggestive of a day filled with strategy meetings.” Love in White? “A chemical white floral so disastrously vile words nearly desert me. If this were a shampoo offered with your first shower after sleeping rough for two months in Nouakchott, you’d opt to keep the lice.” Lanvin’s Rumeur gets a one-word review: “Baseless.”

This is fun to read—and a rare pleasure, too, since the importance of perfume advertising means that one doesn’t often get to read strong criticism of multimillion-dollar-earning fragrances. The joy of Turin and Sanchez’s book, however, is their ability to write about smell in a way that manages to combine the science of the subject with the vocabulary of scent in witty, vivid descriptions of what these smells are like. Their work is, quite simply, ravishingly entertaining, and it passes the high test that their praise is even more compelling than their criticism. Here, in full, is Turin’s review of Lancôme’s Trésor:
I once sat in the London Tube across a young woman wearing a t-shirt printed with headline-size words ALL THIS across her large breasts, and in small type underneath “and brains too.” That vulgar-but-wily combination seems to me to sum up Trésor. Up close, when you can read the small print, Trésor is a superbly clever accord between powdery rose and vetiver, reminiscent of the structure of Habanita. From a distance, it’s the trashiest, most good-humored pink mohair sweater and bleached hair thing imaginable. When you manage to appeal to both the reptilian brain and the neocortex of menfolk, what happens is what befell Trésor: a huge success.
You don’t have to like perfume to like “Perfumes: The Guide.” Its blend of technical knowledge and evocative writing is exemplary in the strict sense: people who write about smell and taste in any context should use it as an example. Turin may be wrong about what appeals to the male neocortex, however. As Sanchez says, “The question that women casually shopping for perfume ask more than any other is this: ‘What scent drives men wild?’ After years of intense research, we know the definitive answer. It is bacon.”

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