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Book Reviews

The Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent

by Denyse Beaulieu

In mostly breathless, giddy prose, Denyse Beaulieu, a Canadian who has made Paris her home for many years, attempts to combine the history of perfume with her own experience of it. Beaulieu writes about perfume on the blog Grain de Musc and did the French translation of Fifty Shades of Grey, and she has learned much about the art and science of creating new scents. But overall, this book is an incoherent mash-up of the public and personal.

The essential problem is that the impetus for the book is highly personal, the author’s sense of smell and romance coloured by an affair the young Beaulieu had in Seville: “I am in the pulsing, molten-gold heart of Seville, thrust into her fragrant flesh, and there is no need for Román to take me to bed at dawn: he’s already given me the night.” When she tells her story to the renowned perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour, he suggests that the narrative forms a good basis for a perfume. The book’s main narrative involves the creation of this new scent, which will be sold commercially. 

Interlaced with the description of the creation and history of manufactured scents is Beaulieu’s own association with perfume, beginning with a father who banned it from the house. Beaulieu’s world is relentlessly heterosexual, and the main purpose of her olfactory sense is carnal. She even uses the word “Moan” (the capital is hers) to reflect her joy at discovering the right combination of ingredients for the new perfume.

A reader able to tolerate Beaulieu’s sketchy outline of her sex life (the two main players, apart from Román, are an ex-husband called the Tomcat and a wealthy married boyfriend called Monsieur) will also learn about the chemicals involved in perfume making, shifts in fashion, and fascinating facts about this ephemeral product. But, overall, the book is a muddled miasma. Beaulieu’s story is far less interesting than she thinks it is, and the tiresome linking of perfume and her sex life becomes annoying.