Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury Academic for this review copy! This book is part of the Object Lessons series, which is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.
Our sense of smell is crucial to our survival. We can smell fear, disease, food. Fragrance is also entertainment. We can smell an expensive bottle of perfume at a high-end department store. Perhaps it reminds us of our favorite aunt. A memory in a bottle is a powerful thing.
Megan Volpert’s Perfume carefully balances the artistry with the science of perfume. The science takes us into the neurology of scent receptors, how taste is mostly smell, the biology of illnesses that impact scent sense, and the chemistry of making and copying perfume. The artistry of perfume involves the five scent families and symbolism, subjectivity in perfume preference, perfume marketing strategies, iconic scents and perfumers, why the industry is so secretive, and Volpert’s own experiments with making perfume.
Object Lessons is published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic.
I have never read any of the Object Lessons books, and I was curious to see what PERFUME held for me. Volpert is a good writer, but she jumps around from subject to subject and it is a bit disconcerting. However, she knows her stuff and each chapter is part autobiographical, part science of smell. There are 8 chapters, with titles such as Time, Science, Technology, and Performance. I ended up ignoring the titles, since each chapter contained a multitude of information, not necessarily matching up with the name the chapter was given.
As I constantly mention, each book that spurs me to Google something I’ve read is always satisfying. I looked up vetiver, Giorgio Beverly Hills (which I subsequently bought), Germaine Cellier, Bang by Marc Jacobs, the Monell Center in Philadelphia, and the ship of Theseus. Each search entertained and educated, and I grew more satisfied with each Google.
If you are looking for a book with detailed descriptions on how to create a scent, you may not be entirely happy with this book. But you will learn a bit about creation, top and bottom notes, names of ingredients that go into a scent, and the gestalt of 80’s perfume (I felt so nostalgic as I read and recalled that decade, my favorite).
One of the scientific paragraphs that grabbed my attention was the following, taken from the chapter Time, discussing perfume formulas:
Perhaps a formula has 50 elements and the lab tech not only doles out all 50 with exactitude, but also the variations the master perfumer has requested to contemplate, such as a set of 10 options where one molecule is increased by a quarter of a percent each time and a second set of five options for each of those ten where the ratio of two other molecules is reduced proportionally alongside the quarter-percent increase of the other. And all the results may smell like garbage.
I had no idea of the depth of work required to create a fragrance, much less the tweaking that is sometimes done, such as CK One evolving into the variation of other CK perfumes. CK One was truly the scent of a generation, and the author handles this little tidbit with aplomb.
Overall, I was happy with this little book. As I read it, I absorbed its contents without knowing that I would think of this book again and again. After a few days separation I realized that I enjoyed it more than I originally thought. Once you get into the flow of the author’s quirky prose, the contents flow smoothly by until you reach the end, and are left wanting more. I do recommend PERFUME as a quick, enjoyable read. Volpert manages to bring literature, philosophy, and science together, culminating in a compact masterpiece.
You can pick up your copy here.