Two Perfume Books : Perfume and The Perfume Companion

Many people know the perfume Guides by Turin & Sanchez, and when the last one came out in 2018 it caused a quite a stir on Basenotes. But not much has been said about two similar books that have appeared since : Perfume - In search of your Signature Scent by Neil Chapman (2019) and The Perfume Companion by Sarah McCartney & Samantha Scriven (2021). Like the A-Z Guide, they are both collections of reviews but in some ways they're very different to that.

Perfume launches straight into the review, but The Companion uses Turin’s device of summing up the perfume first. It doesn’t give a two word summary however, Amarige is ‘The feel-good floral’ while Bleu de Chanel is ‘Everything right and nothing wrong’. Hmm, nothing controversial there then...

Another way these books are different is they only contain positive reviews, which I find a drawback. Not because I specially want to know about bad perfume, just that I miss laughing at the scathing comments. They also don’t give star ratings, and without that sort of framework it’s hard to know where the reviewers draw the line. Do they only write about good perfumes? Or do they give a pass to mediocre ones they personally like. In some cases I own the perfume and disagree with the review; that’s normal of course, ‘à chacun son mauvais goût’. But without the star rating, or the Emperor’s Thumb on Basenotes, it’s hard to know if it’s a good pong they're talking about, or just one they have a soft spot for.

And when it comes to soft spots, Sarah Scriven has one or two; a taste for the sentimental: ‘misty-eyed’, ‘will-o-the-wisp’, and ‘zephyrs’ all appear on one page of her reviews. She is witty, but her writing can also be long winded, and loaded with adjectives:

‘shamelessly huge tuberose, jasmine, rose, and potent narcissus, the flowers agree to a miniscule dial-back before fusing on to a musty chypre base that almost, but not quite, overdresses’.

Try saying that out loud.

Sarah McCartney is the more entertaining writer. She has a down to earth style, but at the same time she likes to use wacky imagery:

‘Picture a spoonful of Lyle’s Golden Syrup.
Nejma 6 is the fragrant equivalent of that feeling.’

or

Eau Parfumée au thé bleu is so delicate, it could be
‘served in translucent china cups by ninja waiters.’

Anyone who's seen her YouTube videos will recognise the style.

When McCartney resorts to lists they are often not perfume notes but concrete images, which is a big help. And not only for the novice who doesn’t know what tuberose or neroli smell like, for example. A list of perfume notes can be stodgy, and confusing, so any way to not pile up the names must be a good thing.
There is a streak of dogmatix about McCartney. She doesn’t shy away from reviewing her own work – which must be a first; but then, when you’ve been a professional writer (for Lush) and professional perfumer, I guess you’re qualified to do that. If you’re justified in doing it though – that’s another thing entirely...

Where McCartney is chatty, Chapman takes it to another level. His writing has a mellifluity; a daringness to invent; and while he may gush, his style can be sinuous and sometimes poetic. He can be note-listy, but also evocative, (and explicit), and despite the occasional flummery - and lengthy digressions - he can capture a scent in a well turned phrase:

Mandragore Pourpre is ‘Twilight winklepickers’

and

The Body Shop White Musk ‘The smell of countless broken adolescent hearts’.

Chapman is the author of The Black Narcissus, a blog about perfume (ostensibly); it also has great photography. But his life as an English man in Tokyo (and life in general) account for a good deal of his output.
In his book, the reviews are more free-form than the tight word counts of The Companion. He may devote a whole page to a perfume, or dash it off in a sentence. Personally, I like the variety, it makes the book more interesting. Chapman also likes to indulge in (sometimes excruciating) anecdotes – which only make passing reference to the pong in question. This is something I enjoy less about the book.
He is a self-confessed perfume obsessive, with a seemingly enormous collection, and of course has a lot of experience. Which is obviously a good thing because the point of reading reviews is to get advice on what to try (or not).

All critics have their own likes and dislikes, and for the reader, the goal is to find a reviewer who’s tastes agree with their own - and use them as a guide. If you like soft and feminine things you’ll probably gravitate to Scriven. But if you don’t, and you’re mad about Rose (no matter what style or colour) you’ll be more at home with McCartney.

Both The Companion and Perfume are egalitarian, there’s no place for snobbery here. McCartney & Scriven give as much space to a Demeter scent as a Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, and Chapman lauds a modest Yves Rocher as much as Caleche or Shalimar. They cover old and new, celebrity and niche, masculine feminine and mixed.

By way of concession to the fact that most of us live in the real world – and don’t have a fortune to fund our perfume habit – The Companion gives a price guide for each scent they review, just like Turin & Sanchez. Chapman doesn’t bother. Also, except for the great masters, he neglects to name the people who actually design the stuff. Being a nose herself however, McCartney is more concerned to bang the drum and gives the name of each perfumer - where known. This is not only good for the ego of the nose in question, but it also helps the reader. Perfumers – like painters – have a style of their own, and if you like one of their works you may (often) like their other stuff too (and vice-versa).

in the books, the reviews are divided up into the usual families; citrus, woody, floral etc, and also include some categories you don’t expect: Eros and Anti-Perfume are featured in Perfume; Soliflors and Concepts in The Companion. They both contain introductions to each family but Perfume devotes more space to these, along with some interesting Guide-style essays at the beginning of the book.
So you can recognise the scent in the shop, or on eBay, they feature line drawings of the bottle, but in The Companion these are much larger, and – with plenty of white space – it looks more like Nez magazine, or an IKEA catalogue, than The A-Z Guide.

They are both published in hardback with similar page counts, but because of the layout, McCartney & Scriven cover about 480 perfumes, while Chapman gets through five times as many. So while The Companion is funny and informative, Perfume is the one I reach for by preference.

About the author
Wild Gardener
Brian is an English teacher living in Paris. He is also known as Wild Gardener

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The Perfume Companion is here to help. The Perfume Companion is a beautifully illustrated compendium of almost My All recommended scents, designed to help you pick out your next favorite fragrance.
 

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