Scent, as we now understand it, is one of the most powerful memory triggers. Odors take a direct route from the olfactory bulb to centers in the brain that process emotions and memories. All it takes is one whiff of that scent and suddenly you’re remembering the first time you ever read a chapter book by yourself. It’s that pencil shavings, playdough, and no-tears shampoo combo that no one has managed to bottle yet. Today, fragrance is a huge international market with hundreds of options from sprays to oils to solids. Perfumery has been in practice since at least Ancient Mesopotamia. Humans, as it turns out, have always wanted to smell good.
Over time, perfume has become more than a hygiene regime. Today, perfume is bought like an accessory to be changed with the weather or mood. Perfume ads are intentionally dreamlike, playing with the senses and emotions. For fragrance lovers, like myself, simply wearing a perfume isn’t enough. We are the book sniffers. We light candles (safely, of course) when we sit down to read. When a book uses sensorial language, even in describing garbage and rotten food, that book is destined to become a favorite. The same way that some readers can vividly picture the characters and story as they read, other readers can imagine the scents described. This list was devised with perfume lovers who just want more in mind.
The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert
Set in Nazi-occupied Paris, this literary espionage novel takes readers on a journey through septuagenarian Clementine’s complicated and scented past. As Clem becomes closer to Oskar, a dangerous and wealthy Nazi, secrets from her past spill like heart notes, of lovers, heists, and underground societies. Among rich detailing and historic context, specific perfumes and sensorial details of notes are sprinkled throughout. This novel is an absolute gem for any fraghead.
Rosewater and Soda Bread by Marsha Mehran
Sisters Marjan, Bahar, and Layla have opened their own Persian café in a sleepy Irish village, much to the curiosity of their neighbors. Just as the sisters are getting settled in their new home, a young woman with a secret appears in their lives. This novel is full of charm, rich details, and even fragrant recipes to recreate at home!
The Scent Keeper by Erica Bauermeister
Do you ever wish you could bottle time, just so you could smell it later? That’s just what this magical novel is about. Emmeline lives on a remote island with her father. He teaches her about scents and memories and how they’re connected. As she grows up, Emmeline must rely on her keen olfactory sense to make sense of the world.
The Secret Of A Heart Note by Stacey Lee
As one of the only two aromateurs on earth, Mimosa “Mim” knows that she’s destined for a future of garden work, matchmaking, and loneliness. Falling in love would make her lose her powers. Still, Mim thinks she can handle regular high school life. This hilarious and sweet YA is blooming with possibilities.
The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
Vibrant and compelling, this historical fictional novel will draw you in with scents of lavender, clove, crushed flowers, delicate oils, and precious herbs. At 17, Lakshmi made her way to the pink city alone, escaping an abusive marriage. She marketed her skills as a henna artist to upper class women, pampering them with beauty treatments while they gossiped. When Lakshmi’s husband appears with a girl in tow, Lakshmi is forced to take the girl under her tutelage. Determined, Lakshmi makes a way for herself despite hardships.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
This German modern classic reads like an old fairytale, warning you of the lurking horrors of the dark, while enticing you with scents of rose and lily. Born in the slums of 18th century Paris, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is blessed and cursed with an extraordinary sense of smell. His nose is not satisfied with mixing the precious oils and herbs of the ordinary perfumer; Grenouille is obsessed with capturing the scent of everything. When Grenouille smells the sublime, he will not rest until he has bottled the scent, no matter the cost. Horrifying and meticulous, this novel is sure to send a shiver down your spine and leave you wondering about that perfume, too.
Perfume by Lizzie Ostrom
Explore the history of perfume through this evocative book. Ostrom invites readers on an olfactive adventure through the 20th century, touching on the marketing, culture, and social aspects that make a perfume stand out. Dissect famous scents and familiar notes, that dominated the marketplace, or quietly stepped onto the scene.
A Scented Palace by Elisabeth de Feydeau
Step into the gilded halls of Versailles with this biography of Jean-Louis Fargeon, personal perfumer of Marie Antoinette. For 14 years, Jean-Louis provided the queen with scents of rose, violet, tuberose, intended to quell anxiety and stimulate the senses. 18th century France was already perfume’s headquarters, making Jean-Louis a powerful figure of Versailles.
Scent and Subversion by Barbara Herman
Discover the interwoven history of perfume and feminism, fashion and design, and LGBTQIA+ history in this luxe book. Inspired by her blog, Herman’s essays on vintage perfume and interviews with perfumers are fascinating and inspiring. A glossary of terms is included, alongside vintage perfume ads, and tips for building your own collection.
In Sensorium: Notes for My People by Tanaïs
Like a well-blended perfume, this memoir is intended to bloom over time with heart, head, and base notes. Writer and independent perfumer Tanaïs shares their layered personal story of South Asian perfume culture, inherited trauma, and the constant threats of contemporary life. Sensorial and raw, this memoir is both a call out and a celebration.
Of course, no perfume library would be complete without Luca Turin’s most updated Perfumes: the Guide. If you need more perfumery fun, I fully recommend The Perfume Room Podcast with Emma Vernon. You might also want to peruse our guide to Bookish Cosmetics & Perfumes.
Don’t mind me, I’ll just be trying to fully immerse myself in a richly descriptive novel while wearing perfume blotters as a mustache.