I eagerly awaited Perfumes: The Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, expecting a carefully-crafted and well-thought-out critique of fragrances written by a olfactory scientist of some renown and a perfume aficionado. Chandler Burr’s excellent The Emperor of Scent led me to believe that Luca Turin was a genius, and I have little doubt that his theory of how the sense of smell works is correct. But as I read Perfumes: The Guide, I confess to having my opinion deflated and overcome by a sense of real disappointment. While the essays in the front of the book are well written and interesting, the real reason to buy the P:TG is the nearly fifteen hundred fragrance "reviews" that make up the bulk of the book. Unfortunately, that's where it all falls apart.
This is a case where one should not judge the book by its cover. That of Perfumes: The Guide bloviates about expertise and definitiveness, leading one to believe that the work is in some way scholarly. Or anything but a collection of opinions. Turin is a biophysicist, and therein is his field of expertise. Sanchez is a writer, primarily of articles on 401(k) allocation. They are both excellent writers, particularly Sanchez; however, I don't think their talent for description should have been wasted in the book equivalent of a blog.
Interesting and amusing descriptions abound; however, many "reviews" are merely snark disguised as expert opinion. It is a series of dueling insults - first Luca, then Tania, then Luca again - ripping apart fragrances without giving much indication of what or why these scents are so offensive to them. Sanchez’s review of Lanvin Rumeur consists of one word: “Baseless.” Base as in root or foundation? Or base as in having a pH greater than 7?
I do find the book entertaining overall; I mostly take umbrage to the “expert” claim. What makes a person an expert? Having written hundreds of reviews on perfume Web sites? Well, guess that makes me an expert too, then, but I don’t have the audacity to make that claim. Anyone who takes my words as gospel has only his or herself to blame. The danger present in a book such as this one that claims to be an authority on the world of scent is that it may scare away the novice perfumistas who might be led to believe that they are "wrong" for liking something so loathsome as Must de Cartier or Sisley Eau de Soir. And that they must love Mitsouko or Chanel No. 5, even if they actually do hate them.
There are no notes listed and the scents are bizarrely categorized, as in the case of Hermes Hiris, apparently a "sad" iris to Turin. Is the iris itself sad? the wearer? Turin? Sad as in melancholy or as in pathetic? It's also apparently, "'Orrible." I'm not getting the Cockney reference. If it's an in-joke, there's no place for it in "a definitive guide to the world of perfume." He also categorizes one-starred Lulu Guinness as “half pint” Is this a reference to Melissa Gilbert’s role on the 70s TV show Little House on the Prairie? Or a unit of liquid measure? Oh wait…Guinness is a kind of beer…how…clever. And while the use of “notes” is possibly overrated, they do still give an indication of what the scent is intended to smell like. I know I appreciate seeing them, even if I end up dismissing most of them as fiction after a sniff or two.
Another problem I have with the book is the sheer joy Turin and Sanchez seem to take in the insult and they squeeze them in any way they can.
"Chanel's boutique fragrances are so good overall that there was a danger of the gods becoming jealous. Gardenia averts this calamity: it is a thoroughly unpleasant, loud airport-toilet floral, very nearly bad enough to grace the ranges of Creed or La Prairie."
Not only was Chanel Gardenia thoroughly trashed, but venerable fragrance house Creed and Swiss cosmetic company La Prairie were also bashed in the same sentence. Was that necessary? Would that be biting the hand that feeds you, or cutting off your "nose" to spite your face?
The reader also gets hit below the belt. Take for example Turin's description of Dolce & Gabbana's Light Blue: "Lemon sorbet doused with rubbing alcohol, technically remarkable in that normally transient top notes are made to last an oddly long time. Trouble is, you want them to go away. If you hate fragrance, you're probably on your fourth bottle."
I also feel the star rating system is unnecessary: five stars is a masterpiece; four is recommended; three is adequate; two is disappointing; one is awful. Why award any stars at all for awfulness? Michelin doesn’t even give stars for “good.” And why do three of the five ratings have a negative connotation? “Adequate” isn’t quite positive – it’s more “buy it if you must, but I am still looking at you with one eyebrow raised.” Take a look at these three star reviews:
Japon Noir (Tom Ford) *** spicy wood
JN is a fine piece of intricate perfumery counterpoint, a rich, compact, spicy confection with unusual fresh, powdery notes in the heart and a distinguished woody-floral drydown. At times I detect the same structure with a touch of osmanthus as in the legendary Nombre Noir (curiously also a Japan-inspired fragrance), but this one is more opaque and less affecting. Beautiful nonetheless, enigmatic, and well put together. LT
Un Jardin sur le Nil (Hermes) *** woody fresh
The involuntarily hilarious story of the composition of this fragrance was told by Chandler Burr in the New Yorker, with poor Ellena trudging to a five-star hotel in Egypt for inspiration accompanied by a high-level Hermes contingent. The result of this pointless exercise is a curiously flat, shapeless, pale-green affair that initially smells a bit like a new plastic tablecloth, then settles to a pleasant woody-fresh drydown. LT
Can you see why both of those rate the same amount of stars? Seems to me that Turin rather likes Japon Noir (but not as much as Nombre Noir) calling it “beautiful.” Un Jardin sur le Nil manages to eke out merely a “pleasant” despite being called flat and shapeless.
In some cases, the stars seem to be awarded on personal preference. Karma solid perfume by Lush gets four stars from Sanchez who adds, “Also, I love perfume solids.” Who cares? Is that important at all?
Ironically (or perhaps not), the book itself stinks. The synthetic plastic paper used to print the dust jacket reeks of a cross between a skunk and the urine of an un-neutered male dog. For a somewhat pleasanter reading experience, remove the dust jacket. In the meantime, I’m going to go douse myself with scent from my fourth bottle of Light Blue.
i missed the "orrible" but i'll bet he's playing off the word orris on that one. i made the mistake of reading a bunch of reviews all at once when i first got the book and got bored. someone, i think march over on the posse, said it's best approached as a box of chocolates, just a few pieces at a time. i think she's right. unfortunately, i read enough to realize i don't really care what they think about things. if here and there they can offer a new angle on some scents, suggest something i missed, it will be okay. it's not the "definitive" guide to be sure, but that's marketing hype. i don't know anyone other than my fellow perfume-obsessed friends who will be interested enough in it to buy it. i can see people who know perfume lovers buying it as a gift, but not so much for themselves. maybe i'm wrong. i think if you stick around perfume long enough you wind up coming to the same conclusions most of us have - that our own opinions are the most valuable to us. if you get distracted by something like this book or opinions on our blogs for a time, i think you eventually course-correct and wind up valuing your own truth regardless of the hubbub. btw, if you haven't already seen what 20 "normal" people think of the 5-star tommy girl, come read. cheers, minette
Great review, very well-articulated and much better-written than much of 'Perfumes: The Guide'! It's true... this book is best taken in small doses. Otherwise, it can be a depressing read. After watching T & L insult perfumers, slash most fragrances to shreds (even the ones they supposedly think are worthwhile), and, most cruelly, make fun of the folks who wear them, one wonders if Mr. & Mrs.Turin even *like* perfume at all.
Yes! And bless you for doing all the dirty work of reading this book so I don't have to.Hiris is one of the few reviews from the book that I did read. Of course, if its not Iris Silver Mist, I suppose Luca has no respect for any other Iris fragrances, it seems. As if to imply there is only one way to skin a cat and only one way to interpret the Iris note. Shame on him. As I've said, they seem to hate all of my favorite fragrances so I stopped reading and I will most certainly not be purchasing the book. Thats $26 that can go towards my fourth bottle of Hiris. Over all, I think the book is dangerous. Especially if you know nothing about perfume. You'll have people walking around Macy's pointing to a Givenchy saying to their shopping partner that its "baseless" or "unethical" or "repugnant" (or any other sort of odd descriptive they pulled out of the hat in the book) without having ever even smelled the damn scent all because they read about it in the guide. And if they only smelled it, they may have discoered the fragrance of their dreams.
I too agree that there is no reason why I should pay good money to get someone to boss me around, telling me what I should like.