During my years living in London in the 1990s, I was well aware of Emma Forrest (above, left) -- the young journalist who'd made a splash writing about music and pop culture in The Guardian and The London Sunday Times. The fact that she'd launched her writing career at age 16 was part of her novelty, but her deft and witty wordsmithery is the reason why she's still delivering the goods -- novels and screenplays now -- today.
Emma's latest work is Your Voice in My Head – a nimble and unsparing memoir detailing the aftermath of a nervous breakdown at age 21 (the downside of being an early bloomer, I guess), as well as a moving homage to the therapist who guided her through the dark woods of manic depression, bad boyfriends and self-harm.
Your Voice in My Head is set in the VIP sections of Hollywood and New York City, and I'm tempted to slap on the log line: “Girl, Interrupted meets Sex and the City.” The book is juicily top-loaded with celebrity cameos, as well as Emma's torrid love affair with a movie star, while also supplying a self-aware and unflinching account of the emotional battleground of her 20s. But reading past my log line flippancy, you'll find the dry, sardonic voice of Dorothy Parker and Holly Golightly in the zip of her bittersweet story. Emma doesn't wallow.
It was Scent Bar's Steve Gontarski who cleverly match-made us for a synesthetic book event at the fragrance shop: the idea was for me to pair perfumes with various themes and extracts from Emma's story. Talk about a challenge -- smellscaping a crack-up is a delicate business indeed. But Emma's curiosity about what I was going to come up with was encouraging, and it was fascinating to witness her visceral reactions to my choices.
As I told the Scent Bar audience, it was a book reading presented in glorious Smell-O-Vision. I intro'd each of the eight excerpts with its associated scent, and blotters sprayed with the perfume were handed out the crowd to smell while they listened to Emma read her passages. The following are Emma's themes and my fragrance pairings:
Theme 1: Ophelia -- Hamlet's tragic heroine, with whom Emma identified a little too dangerously.
Scent: Heeley Ophelia -- White florals and their green stems. Fragile, evanescent, watery -- the antithesis of tough.
Theme 2: English Private School -- Struggling to fit in with the posh kids.
Scent: Penhaligon's Blenheim Bouquet -- With its lime, lavender, pine and black pepper, everything in this fragrance conspires to make you wake up, stand up straight, do your duty.
Theme 3: New York City -- Emma's first time exploring the eccentric delights of NYC.
Scent: Comme des Garçons Odeur 53 -- Ozone, metal, burnt rubber, asphalt. Like NYC, the individual components may be brutal, but together they soften and add up into something pleasing and exciting.
Theme 4: Mania -- Emma's untamed, chaotic energy both attracts and frightens the people in her life.
Scent: Comme des Garçons Daphne -- High strung and dramatic, going in lots of exciting directions at once. You just know Daphne Guinness was rapid-fire talking at perfumer Antoine Lie: “I like oranges and oud and roses and sex and candy and tuberose and saffron and kittens and monkeys and coconut and incense!”
Daphne takes over the whole space when you wear it. It's a perfume with no boundaries, no sense of what's appropriate.
Theme 5: Depression -- Emma slides into the metaphorical dark waters alongside Ophelia. Here's how she puts it in the book:
"Mania flows like a river approaching a waterfall. Depression is a stagnant lake. There are dead things floating and the water has the same blue-black tinge as your lips. You stay completely still because you’re so afraid of what is brushing your leg, (even though it could be nothing because your mind is already gone). That’s why you lay in your bed, (in the center, with my dark blue sheets. The silver curtains are a nod to mania. They were something that seemed like a good idea at the time). My bras are hung on the wall behind my bed, crucified for my sins. I have thirty six bras. I counted. I hold my hands over my breasts in my days and weeks and months in bed, as if someone might steal them.”
Scent: Serge Lutens Gris Clair... -- The cool stew of lavender and incense seasoned with iris and dry wood is somber and melancholic. When she first smelled it, Emma clutched her heart and blurted out “It's so sad!”
Theme 6: Lust -- Emma tumbles into a rapturous love affair with a charismatic movie star who sends her pictures of the moon by cell phone, and poems written on his funky man-smellin' T-shirt.
Scent: Maison Francis Kurkdjian Absolue Pour le Soir -- a savory, sexual blend of cumin, ylang-ylang, rose honey, incense and sandalwood. It's a little B.O., a little “uh-oh!”
Theme 7: Mom -- Emma's mother is whimsical, smart and gentle, but tough enough to pull her daughter back from the brink of ending her own life.
Scent: By Kilian Beyond Love -- Tuberose times ten, with coconut and jasmine. Emma told me that as a 14-year-old, she remembered her mum wearing clouds of Chloé (the original Lagerfeld one) as Emma sulked alongside her on long car rides. The big tuberose that used to be the target of her sullen teen ire is now symbolic of her mother's generous, loving spirit. I love Beyond Love's enfolding, muggy, alive tuberose as a tribute to Emma's mom.
Theme 8: Protection -- Emma's book ends hopefully, with the recognition of love as a force field, as protection...the flow that connects everyone beloved in her life, and keeps them safe.
Scent: Protection by Rossy de Palma from Etat Libre d'Orange – I took my cue here from Emma, whose signature scent this is. Protection is a jagged swirl of rose, incense, and chocolatey patchouli, spiked with ginger and black pepper. The effect is a sharp, metallic/earthy rose, the smell of a rose turned flesh. Roses crushed passionately/protectively to one's chest.
The P.S. to Your Voice in My Head is that it's going to be turned into a movie, screenplay by Emma.)
*Bonus Emma: Read Emma Forrest's evocative Elizabeth Taylor appreciation in The Telegraph.
Photo credits: Adam Eastwood, Steve Gontarski