I´ve spent much of the past couple of weeks tucked into Perfumes: The Guide, to the dismay of the Big Cheese and my children, who kept interrupting me for trivialities like requests for food, or the location of some clean clothing. I was ostensibly issued an early copy for review (the publisher asked us to wait until today to talk about it), but instead I did what I assume every fragrance nut would do – I dug through the book to see what the authors thought of my favorites, feeling smugly vindicated by some and horrified by others.
If you´re reading this blog I assume most of you are familiar with Perfumes: The Guide and the format, and if yo´re not, here´s a link to their website. It´s a long-anticipated updated redo of Luca Turin´s previous French-language Le Guide, an alphabetical list of perfumes, in this edition reviewed by Luca Turin (LT) or Tania Sanchez (TS) or, on a few occasions when they disagree or the fragrance is particularly monumental, by both. The Guide is probably best savored as one would a particularly delectable box of chocolates – devour three or four of them slowly, with a glass of wine or cup of coffee, although I´m not judging you if you do what I did and try to eat the whole box at once. Just warning you: it´s rich stuff, and you may put it down feeling a little ill.
I didn´t see it covered in the introduction, and I was curious: how did the authors round up the fragrances for their review? (From here on out, btw, I´m referring to them as Luca and Tania, because “Turinand Sanchez” sounds stupidly formal to me. LT and TS – mazel tov, and feel free to call me March.) So I emailed the publisher and received the following email response from Tania:
“We had a call for samples on www.perfumestheguide.com. I also phoned up or emailed everyone I could find a contact for, usually the PR department, and I asked them to send samples. Some did, some didn’t. Of those that didn’t, we managed to review some by going out to the shops. We just reviewed whatever came in, and we tried to chase down everyone who hadn’t sent anything. I spent half my day hunting and half my day reviewing, morning to night, throughout the writing of this book. Some firms simply refused to send, or promised to send and did not. Online perfume obsessives will find this hard to believe, but most people in the industry have never heard of either of us, by which I mean it was not simply a matter of saying, ‘Luca Turin wants samples,’ at which point twenty silk-clad servants come carrying goldplated bottles. In fact, it’s possible that those who did know who Luca was were even more reluctant. So it was a real task to convince people to send actual samples, not press releases. We hope they figure it out the next time around.”
I´d read bits of Le Guide, translated from French, so I had some idea of what I´d be getting. Perfumes: The Guide is opinionated, subjective and personal in the same way Le Guide was, and if that annoyed you then, here´s some more. If you love it, and I do, then curl up for a really fun read. I feel like I´m stating the obvious here, but given the way this topic flares up in various ways on various venues, I guess it bears discussing: this book is the labor of love of two obviously intelligent, fragrance-obsessed people, bolstered by a fair amount of technical knowledge and some insider access, but, at its heart, it is opinion. It is subjective. I´m not sure how anyone is supposed to get around the subjectivity of a guide to fragrance — do nothing but list the notes? Even those are suspect, provided by the perfume house. For some reason, a certain percentage of readers seem infuriated by the fact that the fragrances are judged, and some (perhaps their favorites) are found lacking. If having Luca Turin assign your Holy Grail one star (all fragrances are rated from one to five stars) and call it piss in a bottle is going to keep you up at night, fuming, don´t read the book. On the other hand, if you can read some criticism of a bunch of fragrances and be amused by it, even when they´re ragging something your love, well, then, bon appetit.
My chief complaint about the book will be shared by every fragrance nut who reads it – they can´t include everything, so invariably some of the particular things you´re looking for will be missing. As Tania said in her email, “We tried to review complete lines, but some samples clearly fell behind the bookcase.” They review some but not all fragrances of various lines like L’Artisan.Vintage, discontinued, and hard to find fragrances are not included, so no reviews of Coty Chypre, for instance, or Fendi Theorema, or Donna Karan Chaos, although I´d have loved to read their thoughts on those.(They do mention some vintage gems in passing in other reviews).
Any of those folks who´d read Le Guide might have been nervous about submitting their fragrances for the project (and I bet Mona di Orio´s wishing she hadn´t sent hers in. Ouch.) Still, though, in a perfect world they´d have had a perfume-nut friend/editor go over their (probably constantly evolving) list of fragrances to fine-tune any major omissions. For instance, and maybe I missed it, I find the absence of Feminite du Bois a glaring oversight. I bet there are some other niche perfume classics missing as well. By the way, in her email Tania invites readers to send any omissions to the contact email on their website, for further evaluation/inclusion in any future edition. Luca might not know or care what the perfume freaks are interested in, but Tania certainly does, with her involvement on MUA.I´ll be curious, as more of you read it, what else might be missing.
Second, and this isn´t really a fair criticism, but then again I´m not The New Yorker: I wish the authors’ writing styles were more different from each other. Their individual styles are different, but not so obvious as to prevent me from glancing at the bottom of the review to see who wrote it, because I couldn´t necessarily tell from reading it (Tania sounds younger, and go ahead, shoot me; Luca uses more devices like opera references and more olfactory-science descriptors, like chemical components). They share a biting wit that provides some of the funniest moments in the book and at the same time has me wishing vaguely that one of them played the role of straight man. There´s a balance there, I know. They don´t want their review styles to be so disparate as to be jarring; at the same time, I would have enjoyed it had one of them been more measured and low-key in tone. Coming from me, the Queen of Brash, I know that sounds silly, but I still think more contrast in voice would have been refreshing. On the other hand, who wants to be the straight man?
Finally, while I find their one-star reviews amusing, given the space constraints, I´d rather they´d have dropped a few of those, particularly if it´s a series of consecutive reviews stating in various pithy ways that an entire line smells like drain cleaner. They also could have felt free to leave some of the flankers out –I´d gladly have traded the reviews of every single stupid variation of Angel for reviews of five or six other scents.
Overall, though, it´s a slice of heaven. I started to compile a list of shockers and amusing insults, but really, any list I make is going to reflect my personal interests, and your interests are bound to be different. I have no doubt some of the ratings and assessments will have people typing up a storm on the fragrance boards (five stars for Elternhaus´ MoslBuddJewThing?!?!?!one crummy star for Miss Boucheron, Chanel Gardenia, Coriandre and much, much more!) but to me that´s precisely the fun of this type of book. They can be absolutely cruel, and if that´s going to make you weep in pity for their victims, maybe you should save the $28 and buy a cute summer tee shirt and some flip flops. On the other hand, their concise, opinionated, thoughtful, interesting, stunningly articulate 40-odd page introduction and Q&A alone is worth the price. This section touches on taste, style, notes, history, masculines, feminines, and other goodies related to perfume.
I´d like to wrap up this post with a perfectly-timed comment about criticism, left on the blog recently by someone who was clearly chafed by my dissing of Serge Lutens and the Five O´Clock au Gingembre,and I quote:
“critique est facile, seul l’art est difficile..
Que vous ne soyez pas dingue de Five O’Clock est une chose, remettre en cause tout le travail de Serge Lutens en est une autre !
Lui qui tant de fois a osé et imaginé l’impensable…
Lui qui tant de fois a secoué le monde de la Parfumerie paupérisée par une bande d’incultes qui se croyaient plus fort grace à des moyens colossaux dont il n’a jamais disposé…
Seriez-vous capable d’en faire autant ?”
Running that through a cheesy online free translator, I get something like:
“Critical is easy, only the art is difficult..
What you be not crazy Five O’Clock is a thing, question the whole work of Serge Lutens is another!
Him that so many time dared and imagined l’impensable.Him that so many time shook the world of the Perfumery pauperized by a band of uncultivated ones that believed themselves stronger thanks to colossal resources of which he never had…
Would you be able some to do as much?”
Actually, I disagree. Criticism is damn hard. I struggle and fuss over ideas and sentences and sometimes individual words on these posts, and I am sure LT and TS struggled with Perfumes: the Guide. It is, as I´ve just demonstrated, perilously easy to lose things in translation, is it not? From the colossus to his audience, from the bottle to the nose, from the pen to the paper, from the brain to the hand, from the thought to the expression.I share your pain at the world of perfumery pauperized by a band of uncultivated ones (although as another commenter said, I thought Lutens was backed by the other name on the Palais Royal awning, Shiseido, which is somewhere in size between LVMH and Godzilla, and if so I doubt he’s lacking resources.) Ultimately, one of the chief glories of blogging is I can question the genius of Serge Lutens on here and own it, right or wrong. It´s called … an opinion. They´re free, legal, loads of fun, and — like Mitsouko all my other favorite perfumes — they don’t make my ass look any bigger in my jeans.
Today I’m on my way to NYC for the Sniffa — back at you all later.