July 5, 2012
Alyssa Harad is a charming, witty woman I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with on one of her recent trips to San Francisco. While I was reading her new book, Coming to My Senses, I could hear her voice in my head clearly, and it was like spending time with a dear friend. I took the book with me on a short vacation, and sitting outside on the little patio of my rented Hollywood apartment, surrounded by bougainvillea and drinking scented tea, I got lost in Alyssa’s life.
The subtitle of the book is A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride. Alyssa writes about her introduction to the community of perfumistas, and her fall into our rabbit hole of obsession, collection and passion. She takes us with her as she travels the slightly bumpy and bewildering journey to her wedding. Most importantly, though, she writes about pleasure, and the subsequent knowledge of her deeper self through allowing herself to experience it.
Alyssa, like many of us, discovered the world of perfume online, through reading blogs, websites and forums. She found a way to study natural aromas and perfumery, as well as expanding her knowledge of synthetic and mixed-media fragrances. She met fellow enthusiasts, and eventually became a writer on the blogs she had once read. In the book, she recounts her first visit to the perfume paradise of New York, and describes her nervous venture into the intimidating world of Barneys: “At the foot of the stairs was a long perfume counter. Behind it stood a forbidding line of assistants in black, staring up at me like a panel of judges. For exactly six steps I thought I had made a terrible mistake.” The welcoming natures of the sales associates she met at Barneys and elsewhere helped her overcome her unease: “Between the perfume and the compliments, I was feeling witty, a bit magical, even a little bit beautiful. I felt I could talk to anyone about anything.” As it has been for so many of us, perfume opened a world of luxury and beauty that had been barely a thought, much less a place we frequented. For Alyssa, who always considered shopping an anathema, this immersion into what is perceived as a feminine pursuit was quite contrary to her nature, but ultimately a welcome departure.
Perfume enthusiasts will enjoy reading a story that I am sure will resonate with many of their own journeys, but what will a non-perfume person get out of reading this book? Fortunately, I think the book will have a broader appeal. It is a delightful story about romance, and has some great moments surrounding the preparation for the wedding of Alyssa and her beloved V. Alyssa has all the stumblings, and failings of self-esteem, that many brides do (having a meltdown in the car after a traumatic trip to find the proper foundation garments, for example), accompanied by revelation. One of my favorite passages, one that I found incredibly poignant, was when V. said something to her after her lively, perfume-infused bridal shower with her female relatives: “’But did you see your mother’s face?’ I tried, and failed, to remember what my mother had looked like at the shower – she was sitting next to me, I explained, so I couldn’t really see her – he said ‘You should have seen her face.’ But when I asked him what she looked like, all he said was, ‘Surprised. And very proud. But mostly surprised. Like you were someone she had never seen before.’ And then he added, ‘She really loves you, you know. All these women do.’ I said nothing, but lay in the dark thinking of my mother and what she might have seen, what I might have looked like, praising my gifts to those who had given them to me.” I could imagine Alyssa’s mother suddenly seeing her daughter as an adult woman, with her own interests, and her own knowledge and passions; really seeing her for the first time. It was a beautiful, rare moment described with love. Alyssa’s passion for perfume had not only become a focal point for herself, but for her family, and they were all able to know her better, and come to know themselves better, as a result.
Perfume – not only the wearing of it, but the exploration of it as an art form – is a compelling sensual pleasure. Alyssa brings her experience of that pleasure, of the momentarily forgetting of one’s surroundings that inhaling a giddy aroma can bring to intoxicating life. Her writing style is tender and compelling. Her descriptions are captivating. Coming to know oneself though one’s passion is a theme that is universal. Ultimately, that Alyssa’s passion is perfume is not what is important. What is important is that her passion brought her to a deeper understanding of her life, her loved ones, and her world. It brought her to her senses.
Coming to my Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure and an Unlikely Bride, published by Viking, is available now through online retailers and at independent booksellers. Viking provided review and draw copies of the book, for which we are grateful. Alyssa will be doing a presentation at the Artisan Fragrance Salon on July 8.
We have one copy of the book available to give away to one lucky winner! Please let us know if anything in this review resonated with you, or let us know how you started on your perfume journey. Draw ends at midnight July 8th.
We announce the winners only on site and on our Facebook page, so Like Cafleurebon and use our RSS option…or your dream prize will be just spilled perfume..um..lost book.
-Tama Blough, Senior Editor