Turin argues in his earlier book, _The Secret of Scent_, that smell is not so much about memory and biology, as is widely believed, as it is about beauty and imagination. He believes, furthermore, that one of the highest achievements in perfumery is what he terms "abstraction," that is to say, the creation of olfactory accords that, while perhaps alluding to natural smells, are novel and resistant to definition. These aesthetic axioms (which he presumably shares with co-author/wife Tania Sanchez) are the basis of the evaluations in this book, and we, as readers, have no choice but to take them or leave them. These axioms lead the authors to prefer complex fragrances over simple ones, fragrances that develop over time to linear ones, original and/or unique fragrances over skillful executions of old ideas, "interesting" (even if vaguely unpleasant) fragrances over boring (even if pleasant) ones, etc. In a nutshell, they apply the same standards to perfume that other critics usually apply to other arts. They want perfumery to be taken seriously as an art form, and say as much.
This is a legitimate view, and one to which I am highly sympathetic. That said, I think the authors overlook (or deliberately ignore) some of the factors that render the purely aesthetic appreciation of perfume difficult at best. First of all, perfumes are made to be worn. The final aesthetic effect of a fragrance is inseparable from the time, place, and person(s) involved. Of course this "framing" or contextualization effect is at work in all art forms, but it is arguably more important for perfumery than for others. Given the fact that perfumes are mixtures of chemicals, factors such as temperature, humidity, skin pH, decomposition, underlying body odor, age-related hyposmia, differing olfactory thresholds, etc., make this state-dependence even more crucial. And, regardless of what Turin might say, it is simply impossible to separate a fragrance from the associations (read: memories) it may evoke. Perhaps it's possible to "see" the Platonic form of a perfume behind all of these contingencies, but I highly doubt it. Our reactions to smells are visceral before they're intellectual or aesthetic, no doubt because our sense of smell is our primary sentinel against many toxins and pathogens. Individual differences in sensitivity to certain aromatic chemicals are highly significant and render any kind of objective discussion of fragrances impossible. We're not even working with the same equipment--it's like a society of people who are all partially blind to different colors trying to discuss color coordination. The fundamental variability of our olfactory apparatus, even before differences in taste are taken into account, makes the arrogance of some of the pronouncements in this book a bit galling.
People *wear* fragrances (as opposed to sniffing them on strips--decidedly a minority pastime) for a variety of reasons: to make a statement, to find comfort or stimulation, to complement a particular ensemble, to seduce (and here the tastes of the quarry count far more than Apollonian meditations on beauty), and even, in some parts of the world, to mask the fact that they haven't bathed (it's no wonder that perfumery reached its pinnacle in Europe, where people didn't--and sometimes still don't--bathe regularly). Most people simply want a fragrance to make the day a little more pleasant for themselves and for those around them, not because they want to wear a work of "art" whose complexity and depth are going to make heads turn or spark a discussion about the relative merits of gourmand chypres and aromatic fougeres. Hence the incomprehension and hurt feelings that have greeted some of the harsher reviews in this book.
Assuming that one buys into the premise that perfume is a pure art, the authors, in general, seem to have excellent (i.e., informed, refined, and considered) taste--except when it comes to reviewing the work of their friends. Turin, for example, rates Calice Becker's Beyond Paradise Men as one of the top ten masculines currently in production. Since it isn't very expensive I decided to take a chance and buy it blind on his recommendation. The highly synthetic headache-in-a-bottle I got stuck with isn't terrible, I suppose, but if it's one of the top ten masculines that money can buy in early 2008, then I'm Jacques Guerlain. In a different part of the book I discovered that Turin is good friends with Becker. Ah ha... I don't mean to suggest that Turin was cynically shilling for a friend, but rare is the man who is immune to the tender, insidious persuasions of friendship. I'm certain no one else on the planet would rate that fragrance quite so highly. Such are the dangers inherent in taking the word of a consummate industry insider without a huge grain of salt. Turin also awards points for historical importance to fragrances he can't even stand to be around--Opium, for example. This, I think, is taking the "perfume as art" shtick a little too far. When reviewing fragrances that knock their socks off (especially a fragrance saturated with some deep personal significance) both authors (but Sanchez in particular) tend to wax poetic and come off the rails in terms of actually describing the fragrance. Some of this lyricism is quite affecting, but alas too much of it sounds like an exercise for a creative writing workshop, and the straining for effect turns tiresome. The humor, too, is witty in spots but tends consistently towards juvenile mockery and inane plays on perfumes' names.
All of these caveats aside, this is a very informative and often entertaining book. If you love fragrances, it is clearly a must-buy because it offers an excellent idea of which to sample next. If it educates consumers to stop buying and chides producers to stop making the cheap and and often hideous potions flooding the market, it will have done its job. I've learned a lot from the book and am grateful to the authors for having written it, but in the end it's more trustworthy as a Baedeker than as a Michelin.