The Oregon Experiment by Keith Scribner features a professor of anarchy newly arrived in a small town in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, his wife the perfumer, a “sensuous free spirit called Sequoia” and a complicated anarchist. The review copy came with a sample of perfume called “The Oregon Experiment” by Yosh Han.
Could there be a better book for me to review? I like to read and I like perfume. Also, I’m a Portlander and live in a neighborhood so liberal that my Gore-Lieberman lawn sign was vandalized for not touting Nader. Sequoia is one of the more subtle hippie-girl names within a five-block radius of my house, which includes the fabled Peoples Co-op. Scribner, I’ll see your anarchist and raise you a freegan.
So, I opened The Oregon Experiment with relish. The novel is beautifully written — polished to a high shine, and full of lush turns of phrase. But in the end, it’s like an intricately carved chair of satiny wood that is too high to sit in, or only has three legs. It doesn’t fulfill its function. No matter how keen the description, the story and three of its four main characters failed to engage me.
In The Oregon Experiment, Scanlon Pratt, a professor teaching mass movement and domestic radicalism, gets a job in Douglas, a small Oregon town. He’s brought along his pregnant wife, Naomi, who quit her job in the fragrance industry because she lost her sense of smell after a car accident. Lucky for Pratt, Douglas has an active secessionist movement, although they’re not making much progress other than regular meetings and a potential home in an abandoned church building. When not crafting new scone recipes and running around the house barefoot, Sequoia is in charge of the movement. A few other people with more violent notions of anarchy hang at its fringe, throwing bricks through bank windows and torching SUVs. This is ripe ground for Pratt, who is pressured to publish something to save his academic career. At the same time, Naomi's ability to smell has returned and now she can begin to regain her independence and sense of self.
Scribner describes a small college town in western Oregon perfectly, from the cowboy-hatted, truck driving gentlemen with dogs in the passenger seat, to dread-locked white boys who brew their own kombucha. He paints a jam-packed setting, with strip malls, logging contests, crafts fairs, tract homes, unwashed bodies, and weather you can practically taste. He’s funny, too, especially when describing secondary characters, such as Pratt’s parents.
But I just couldn’t care about the story. Nothing compelling was at stake, so I didn’t care what the characters did. Pratt might lose his job if he doesn’t turn out a couple of good articles on anarchy. Big deal. The book makes it clear neither Pratt nor his wife wants to be in Douglas, anyway, and they plan to move as soon as they can. Pratt and Naomi’s marriage is threatened. Who cares? The reader never gets to see their real bond, their real happiness, so there's really nothing to lose. Some anarchist is planning to blow something up. I’m not attached enough to anything in the book — except maybe Pratt’s nudist, rum-and-coke drinking, RV-living dad — for the prospect to raise my pulse a heartbeat.
I might have cared more had I developed more sympathy for the main characters. It’s not clear why Pratt chose mass movements as his field of study. He only shows occasional sparks of real interest in it. He’s kind of a bumbler, too, getting stoned, unable to communicate with his wife, and at 39 still relying on infusions of cash from Naomi’s parents. Naomi is a definite cold fish. It’s rare she even smiles, and it’s not until deep into the book that she shows the type of unexpected kindness and understanding that helps a reader become attached to her. As for Sequoia, I don’t even need to describe her — you already know the type.
Clay, the anarchist, is the character that had resonance for me. He’s unexpected, caring and kind, yet cruel, and Scribner portrays him in a way that has kept him living for me beyond the novel’s last page.
One more note before we go on to perfume: The Oregon Experiment is heavily boob-focused. Breasts and breast feeding dominate the novel’s final two-thirds. The symbolism is not subtle. (Thinking about it now, I wonder why Knopf’s PR people didn’t send it to La Leche League instead of to us.)
Naomi is described as a Givaudon-Roure-trained nose with experience at Dior, Shiseido, Calvin Klein, and Manhattan Scents and who loves the fragrances of the 1920s, including Lanvin My Sin. Except for brief mentions of My Sin and Calvin Klein Obsession, there’s no perfume name dropping. That’s o.k. with me. Instead, we get lists of things Naomi likes to smell: apple mint, baked goods, ocean air, scalps like dandelions, hot tubs, the components of herbal tea. The reader quickly determines she has an acute sense of smell, but we get very little insight into fragrance composition or her ability to create. Except for one short bit where she’s working on her “Oregon” fragrance, we only know she can sniff like a bloodhound and identify what she smells. That’s like a painter being good at noticing and identifying colors. We have no sense of her artistry. In another minor, but telling, false step, on page one Naomi reflects on losing her sense of smell, “anosmia, the doctors called it.” She wouldn’t have needed anyone to tell her what anosmia is. She would have been using that word and identifying her own olfactory blind spots since week one of perfume school.
Which brings us to The Oregon Experiment, the fragrance. It smells nothing like the narcotic sophistication of My Sin. It’s a leafy, grassy green scent quickly enveloped by resinous pine, lavender, and cedar, and warmed by amber. In short, it smells like something Sequoia might have made at the aromatherapy shop.
I wish Scribner’s luxuriant and skillful writing hung on more compelling plot and characters. Maybe the next book. I’ll be waiting for it.
Thank you for this review! I have a bit of the perfume, and knew there was a book, but hadn’t quite put the two together. I wasn’t even sure if it was a novel. I had some idea that it was another project along the lines of Kedra Hart’s Eau Pear Tingle, which was made for folks who are anosmic, but I see now that they are not related.
I get so annoyed when I read something like that – all that beautiful prose wasted! I want to be able to read YOUR book!
Scribner is such a great writer. He takes so much care putting together every scene. But darn it, the stakes just didn’t feel high enough to me to care what happened, and I couldn’t get attached to the characters.
The nose angle is a little fishy, too. Naomi sets up her perfume organ after not having been able to smell for 9 years. Really? And all her materials were fresh and ready to go? When she gets her sense of smell back, she can’t wait to smell everything in her environment–except perfume. If I were a nose who regained my sense of smell after 9 years, I’d be dying to try some of the work of other noses I admired. I’d be ordering up all the new Serges, Chanels, and Malles (for a start) to try their compositions.
Those mistakes that you mention, are the kinds of mistakes that keep me from reading horse/racing novels. There are always those little, telling gaffes that clue you in that your author may have done his research, but doesn’t really understand the game.
Yes–when writer knows just enough to be dangerous. That said, have you read any good novels about horses that you feel really get it right? My dad is a horse shoer, and I bet he’d love one.
Re: good novels about horses. If you haven’t read Lord of Misrule you absolutely must. The author worked at a race track for years as a young woman, then became a sort of avant garde novelist. This is her first realist novel and it is BRILLIANT. The language, the characters (including the horses), the detail, the story. And there’s plenty at stake, Angela.
Thank you! I love a good book recommendation, and this one sounds terrific.
Some of my favorites are the Dick Francis mysteries. Francis was a steeplechase rider and he sets his stories – they’re usually murder mysteries – in the racing world. And obviously, he gets it right. They’re fairly light, but very entertaining.
Two great sources of racing and/or horse books:
I totally know this. I grew up on a ranch, around horses all my life. I read this hot stuff novel, with a horse on the cover, and he had a “wild heifer” biting a man, ripping his flesh. I wrote his dumb ass. I said, “Bovines don’t have upper and lower teeth both, so they really can’t BITE, per se. Their whole digestive tract/defensive strategy is different. Do your homework, so you don’t make a further ass of yourself. Don’t create drama out of ignorance just because you think it sounds cool. It doesn’t.” He took his chewing out well, and we corresponded a bit after. Writers. You have to be so careful when you write about any specialty, be it perfumes or horses or falconry.
You’re merciless! I’ll have to make sure I don’t refer to heifers in my perfume reviews (not that I have–well, one review mentioned a pregnant cow that was hit by a car, but that’s all). Seriously, though, I suppose it’s practically inevitable that a writer will mess up details when wading into unfamiliar territory, and most of the time I’m pretty forgiving. Although if I had my own heifer….
Sometimes too much polish covers the core, and detracts from it?
like a beautifully dressed and made up woman, that makes it difficult to see below the surface
In this case, I’m not sure the core was strong enough to support the polish, but I definitely know what you mean.
Great review, Angela! It is so hard to find both sterling prose and a riveting plot with sympathetic characters. Especially now, it seems the NYT best seller list is populated by authors like Dan Brown with their intense plots, but fairly simplistic writing.
Two very different authors that come to mind for combining both prose and plot are John Le Carre (I love spy novels!) and Barbara Kingsolver (more character driven).
For me, the perfect writer introduces characters who are sympathetic in at least some small way and gives them some surprising contradictions and maybe a secret or two. Once I’m hooked on the characters, toss them in a plot where they stand to lose something deeply important, and I’ll read for hours straight. Judiciously weave in a setting I can taste and feel, and I’ll get hold of everything that writer publishes.
I couldn’t make it past page 3 of the Dante whatever by Dan Brown. Couldn’t do it. John le Carre is terrific, though!
Thanks for the review Angela, have you read Raymond Chandler? I suspect from your reviews that your taste would veer strongly to the master of noir. Goodness his words are wonderful! I find his writing of ‘atmosphere’ to be particularly vivid – sound seems more muffled when he describes a downpour, and you can feel grit between your teeth as he writes about the Santa Ana winds. Just amazing.
Oh yes, I’m a big Chandler fan! I love the description of the Santa Anas where he talks about them making a young bride feel the edge of a knife and eye her husband.
One of his books (I think it is the Lady in the Lake), starts out at the offices of a major perfume company. The detective satirically eyes an advertising display for the flagship scent and thinks to himself that the ad suggests that the perfume acts as a snag for hooking a rich husband who will set you up with pearls for life.
Things do not actually work out so well for the wife of the executive of the company.
Yes! Lady in the Lake is on my coffee table now, lined up for a reread.
thats kind of what i mean…a really exciting plot is generally not accompanied by beautiful prose…normally a simple style
Letting the plot and action carry the book, you mean? I’ve read lots of good books like that.
Dan Brown’s lack of knowledge of basic iconography drove me crazy. Yes, medieval and Renaissance art had lots of symbols and codes, but they were not intended to be secret; they were intended to be understood by the viewers since the art was a primary way of convening theological information to the worshipper. Hence, when St. Anne holds her hands like a cutting implement over baby St. John’s head, she is not referencing a secret theology, but the very traditional story that St. John will ultimately be martyred by having his head cut off. “Rose” designs are all over architecture and paintings for the same reasons they are widely used in graphics and art today: everyone loves roses and pretty much anytime you make a series of concentric circles or spiraliing circle you have a kind of rose design.
I love how smart NST readers are. Honestly. If we were all gathered in a meeting hall, we could have the most interesting discussion ever.
I read The Divinci Code because it was so discussed, but it really surprised me that something so poorly written could get enough attention to create controversy.
My version of this discussion on writers who don’t know what they’re talking about was a Michael Crichton book about global warming. Without venturing into politics, let me just say that the man is clearly not an ecologist!
I hope it was, at least, a good story!
You know, I was so distracted by his misinformation and hit-me-over-the-head agenda, that I really couldn’t get into the plot or characters.
So, Angela – McMinnville? Corvallis? Forest Grove? Monmouth? Which do you think was the inspiration for the town?
The perfume sounds interesting, but made me wonder what my Oregon Experiment perfume would smell like. Would it smell like the foothills of the Siskiyous, all cedar and pine? Or like the bracing salt water and seaweed in a Haystack Rock tide pool? Or like the dust and sagebrush and faint scent of old cowpats at French Glen?
I have to think Corvallis is, since that’s where the author lives, but any of those are good guesses! “Douglas” is a genius made-up name for a small Oregon town, too. I think of Douglas county and Doug Fir–both truly western Oregon.
Other Oregon perfume inspirations: home-brewed beer, coffee, cheap patchouli, China Rain oil, biodiesel fumes, bookstores.
Yes, “Douglas” was an excellent choice.
The stink of a paper mill is a distinctly Oregon smell to me, too (although there’s less of them now than there used to be).
Ha! I remember that, Marjorie Rose. You could certainly smell it as you drove down I-5. And I know from pulp mills, since I lived in Tacoma for over 20 years.
I was born and raised in McMinnville, but if I were going to make a perfume for Oregon, I don’t know how recognizably “local” it would be. I would want it to smell like pouring rain on hot asphalt in the peak of Indian Summer, mixed with the scent of cut grass from the neighbor’s lawn next door.
Nice! I’d wear that.
Corvallis left me unable to smell for a few days because of all that pollen. It’s touted as the grass seed capitol of the world. The local pharmacy says it sells a lot of Claritin.
Have you watched Portlandia?
I live in northern California, incidentally, dividing time between country and city.
I hear all the time about people who never had allergies until they moved here! I hear tree pollen is bad, too.
Oh yes, I’ve watched plenty of Portlandia. It seems like everyone here now nods their heads over this and that, saying it would make a good episode for Portlandia.
You must have seen the New York Times magazine article about Portlandia. Unfortunately, I can watch it only when I’m in San Francisco on a Friday night. My country location doesn’t get the program. Darn!
It sounds like maybe your internet connection (like mine) is too slow to stream it to your computer, too. Well, maybe it will be on DVD soon!
That’s a real howler about anosmia. Of course the Naomi would know what it was, but the concept has to be explained to the reader.
I work in museums and such places and I rarely read novels which take museums, libraries or archives as settings. People are fascinated by what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ but writers hardly ever really know much about museums etc – why would they? – so the details are nearly always inaccurate. That doesn’t matter if the story and characters are good, but it does make me cringe all the same.
I wonder if P.D. James made her colleagues in the health bureacracy cringe when she described policing and forensics in her novels? Or did she get it basically right?
It would have been easy to slip in an explanation: “She was anosmic–couldn’t smell a thing” for instance. We’re smart readers and would have figured it out.
I’m so envious of you for working in museums! What kind of museums? Art would be wonderful, of course, but old documents and artifacts would really get the imagination going.
Social history museums mostly, and archives (in a peripheral sort of fashion). Yes, it is wonderful work, but people don’t realise how bureacratic museums often are. I spend most of my day in front of a computer, same as half the rest of the western world!
There goes the dream!
Have you read P.D. James’s autobiography? I believe she speaks to that question, although I dont remember much of what she said. The early part of the book is fascinating; the latter part is a bit sad, to my thinking.
I haven’t read it. I really admire her, though–I bet her autobiography is a great read.
You know, I had a copy but somehow it did not appeal, and the next time I had to clear out my shelves to make room for more, I scooped it up and gave it away. Not for the first time do I regret this! Anyway, it is the sort of book that is easy to pick up 2/hand. Thanks for rreminding me of it.
Have you read P.D. James’s autobiography? I believe she speaks to that question, although I dont remember much of what she said. The early part of the book is fascinating; the latter part is a bit sad, to my thinking.
Slightly unrelated to the book but, you live in Portland, Oregon too?!? That’s so cool! I technically live in Beaverton, Oregon, but I go to school at Portland State University, and get the chance to explore southwest Portland, as well as visit southeast Portland as well because my boyfriend lives over there. Can I ask what the name of your neighborhood is? And also, I’m assuming that’s it’s in SE Portland….is it? I’m so intrigued, lol.
It’s nice to meet another Portlander! Someday we’ll have to have a big Portland sniff-a-thon. I’ve met a handful of other perfume lovers in town, too.
I’m a SE Portlander, too (Hawthorne Dist.).
Angela, there was a thread a few months back with some Oregon/
Washington/ Western Canada folk suggesting a get-together. It has set a seed in my mind to help make it happen some time, but not anytime super soon. If I get brave enough to semi-organize something, I’ll be sure to post it on NST.
That sounds great! You can count me in.
I try to get back home (family in Seattle and Portland) at least once a year, and if it coincided with an NST perfumista get together, I’d love to be there. It would be such fun!
I think we need to do it!
Wow, there’s quite a bit of Oregonians here! I am one too, and I am really torn about the book now. Kind of want to send it to my MIL who is an avid reader because of all lovely Oregon scenes. Kind of don’t, though, because who cares about a plot like that??
and the fragrance sounds somewhat like Mountain High from Smell Bent — have you tried it? How does it compare to Oregon Experiment? The list of notes is almost identical!
I haven’t smelled Mountain High. I’ll have to give it a try! I wouldn’t be surprised if they are really similar–Oregon Experiment (the fragrance) doesn’t strike me as especially one of a kind, but clean and piney and probably with brothers and sisters all over the place.
Angela, I spent my adolescence in your neighborhood, in the 70s, and I was a regular at People’s. I was crazy about the carrot juice. My Portland perfume would reflect that rootiness as well as Forest Park smells, and roses (it’s Rose City, after all). I went to a little alternative school on Clinton St. I miss Portland, but am just down the road in Eugene, and if there’s ever a sniff-a-thon in Portland, I’d hit the freeway.
How perfect to include roses–and carrots! Given all these Oregonians (who’d have guessed?) it seems like we really need a gathering.
I would say the same thing is true of much of modern literature; little is at stake. It sounds like a typical academic life, and it is indeed tough to determine if there’s anything real at stake in most of those these days.
I’m sorry to hear there’s little perfume name-dropping (I always enjoy that!) and little compelling reason to read this; I’m looking for more reading material!
I am reading A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff. Most of the names dropped in this book are clothing designers from the ’30s through the ’70s, but a few perfumes have also been mentioned: Ma Griffe, Magie Noire and J’Adore.
I read that book! In fact, it was an NST reader who recommended it to me, knowing that I like vintage clothing.
I think Pratt’s need to publish could have been compelling if (1) we had an idea he was going to lose something vitally important to him, and (2) we cared about his happiness. There are a million ways to telegraph this to the reader, but it didn’t come through here, so I didn’t really root for him. Lots of domestic dramas (think Franzen’s Freedom) are really compelling. Oh well.
As a fairly recent humanities PhD dropout, I got a good chuckle out of Angela’s take on the publish-or-perish situation. I reached much the same conclusion myself, and bailed on my program shortly thereafter. (Besides, grad student funding doesn’t allow for many perfume purchases.)
It takes courage to change directions! Good for you. I hope you’re doing something now you love (and that earns you enough cash for perfume, of course).
Well, I love not being in grad school anymore! Seriously, it’s a joy to read whatever I want without feeling guilty because I should be reading something that’s relevant to my PhD work or intellectually fashionable or what have you. I’ve returned to my pre-PhD career, which suits me fine and affords enough perfume money. (I may revisit the idea of grad school once my husband is done with his law program, but only if I have a compelling desire to switch careers and need another degree in order to do so.)
Thank you for your kind words, Angela — the academy is very good at perpetuating its own mystique, and even four years after leaving, it’s still refreshing to be reassured that there’s nothing wrong with taking a different path.
We should make a club of “path changers.” We’d have a lot to learn from each other, I’m sure.
Love that idea! (My husband would have a lot to contribute, too — at the time we met, I was getting back into professional editing after my grad school stint, and he was preparing to start law school after a decade as a stagehand and lighting designer!)
Angela, thank you for your review! I have this book in my amazon cart. I just received a gift certificate, I was planning to use it toward this purchase. Now, I will wait till I can get it from a used book store.
On the topic of anosmia and the courage to change directions, I once met a professor of Arabic who as a young man trained as a perfumer. He lost his sense of smell after an illness and did not want to do anything else in the industry, so he went into the academia. He eventually recovered much of his sense of smell, but he preferred teaching, so he never went back. He says that smelling today’s perfumes he feel even better about his choice.
What a fascinating man he must have been! Perfume and arabic sound so tantalizing together.
Angela, this is Cheryl (of book reviews past). I’ve been away so long I can’t remember that log in–if it still exists. I was thrilled to find this review and look forward to more.
Do all roads lead to Oregon? I lived there for 3 years, some time ago. Loved it.
Hi Cheryl, we miss you! Book reviews have suffered, but I thought I’d take this one on anyway.
It really is amazing how many people have lived a spell in Oregon!
I miss being here, too! I do hope you’ll keep posting reviews. You are terrific!