In fiction, an effective writer uses plot not just to move the story along, but to illuminate an underlying theme. If Mandy Aftel’s Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent were a novel, the plot would be the five essences — cinnamon, mint, frankincense, ambergris, and jasmine — around which she structures the book. The theme would be beauty.
In Fragrant’s first chapter, Aftel writes about how she became involved with perfume, then says:
As I researched and thought about the deeps ways that perfume touches our most primal selves and the collective self of our species, I realized that I had the makings of an adventure story of sorts, an entrée to writing about scent as a series of excursions into the fragrant world that I think will return you more awake and alive, more profoundly able to “smell the roses.”
She structures this story around five scents, and links each scent with an aspect of life: cinnamon is linked with adventure, mint with home, frankincense with spirituality, ambergris with our fascination with the animal world, and jasmine with seduction. Within each of these sections, Fragrant offers an engrossing mish-mash of Aftel’s musings, quotes from centuries-old perfume texts, bits of Greek myths, scent recipes, and illustrations. The book contains tidbits like 19th century instructions on what to do if your dress catches fire; a poem by Michael Ondaatje; a story of how Louis XIII’s wife hung birds made of scented paste from the ceiling; a reflection of the “zen of perfume making”; and a recipe for Coca Cola. Above all, though, she reflects on the nature of beauty.
This is where Aftel really grabbed me. Throughout the book, Aftel elucidates her own philosophy on beauty by, for example, examining the nature of luxury — a cup of mint tea is pure luxury, she says, and I agree wholeheartedly (although I don’t have a lot of experience with “traditional” luxury, like, say, Bentleys). She writes about the beauty of the hand-crafted, the perfection of the slightly imperfect, the spirituality of beauty, and how beauty’s mutability from age only enhances its allure. She points out that “more of” and “more expensive” don’t necessarily equal “more beautiful.”
Fragrant is lovely to hold, too. Its cover is a sort of foiled maroon illustration of people harvesting cinnamon. The drawing is laid over an orange background with black lettering and a black border. The endpapers are rich purple. Its cream pages are deckle-edged, and you might turn a page to find a hand-drawn illustration of a steam distiller or a perfume beaker, or a sidebar describing Japanese wabi sabi textiles. It’s a great book for browsing.
One more observation: Aftel’s voice is slightly removed. From the vaguely formal structure of her sentences and her word choices, the woman herself doesn’t always come through. This observation is hard to explain. It’s not about telling salacious stories or using colloquial phrases. In Fragrant, I see Aftel’s passion and curiosity, but I also get the idea that she might be a little shy, and in writing, she shields herself a bit. But don’t get me wrong — the book reads well and easily.
Even if you’ve spent years in the perfume weeds, I think you’ll find a lot to learn — and enjoy — in Fragrant. I know I did. I’m adding the book to my list of Christmas gifts to give to people who don’t quite get my obsession. In the meantime, I’ll keep my copy handy to dip into as I enjoy the occasional cup of — yes — mint tea.
Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent by Mandy Aftel is in hardback for $27.95 and e-book for $11.99. It’s published by Riverhead Books. Aftelier also sells a Companion Kit (see image, above right) with the five essences in Fragrant, including a little chunk of frankincense resin that I'm planning to wrap in a vintage handkerchief and keep in my purse. The kit is $25.