You already know this, but romance fans are very knowledgeable about matters of the heart. Sure, some may joke that we’re holding out for perfection, but the very opposite is true. We know what real, messy love looks like — and we know that we deserve it. That’s why each month The Romanswer, aka Brianna Hunter, answers your love queries using the very best examples there are on the subject — romance novels.
Lately I’ve been active on the dating scene and I’ve met some inspiring fellas. But there’s one catch: some of the most charming, wonderful dudes smell weird to me! I don’t know if it’s halitosis, ketoacidosis, or eewthatsgrossis … but after having showered with a guy (yowsa), witnessing him thoroughly sudsed and STILL smelling like old beans, I’m starting to think it’s pheromones. Meanwhile, I also dated a couple guys who smelled delectable, but their personalities weren’t a good match. So should I wait for the perfect guy to come along, with all the qualities I value (and that’s a lot) PLUS a yummy personal fragrance? Or am I expecting too much? In short: can I justify breaking up with a cool guy because he smells like earthworms?
To my delicious Nose-it-all,
Your question is apt: every reader of romance novels knows (nose!) that scents often play a central role in the plot, tempting heroes and heroines to fall for one another. Vampires are overcome by the titillating olfactory notes of their potential mates’ blood, and Regency-era dukes smell of leather, rain and clean sweat—while their future duchesses fill the air with notes of lemon, honey and rose.
Romance plots rely on an obstacle that must be overcome, and also on some force that drives characters to overcome it and find each other. Often, this seductive force takes the form of some innate quality that can only be described in terms of subjective pleasure. A heroine’s luscious, lemon-scented locks aren’t universally appealing; they are only particularly appealing to the hero. Scent is just one way the hero and heroine understand desire and regard for something even more ineffable than smell: the entire, essential self of the other.
For you, I turn to a classic in which smells feature prominently: It Happened One Autumn, by Lisa Kleypas. Like you, the heroine—Lillian Bowman—has an exceedingly sensitive nose. Her father owns a soap company in New York City, where she has refined her sense of smell. From the outset, Lillian and the hero, Marcus (Lord Westcliff), can’t stand one another, even as they are wildly attracted to each other. Lillian thinks Westcliff is snobbish, and he thinks she is too coarse. In order for the plot to move forward, there has to be something that draws them together, and in this book, it at first seems to be Lillian’s new perfume.
At the very beginning of the novel, after her family has traveled to England to find noble husbands for her and her sister, Lillian designs a perfume for herself. This perfume has a “secret ingredient” meant to make her irresistible to potential suitors. Throughout, Lillian believes that Marcus only feels attracted to her because of this unique scent. Not until she confesses at the end of the book does she learn to trust that the perfume didn’t possess anything out of the ordinary; it’s only when she wears it does her perfume appeal to Marcus. In other words, the magical addition that entices her true love is actually only herself.
Tellingly, Lillian is also pulled in by Marcus’s own olfactory aura at first; in fact, it is their initial attraction to each other’s scents which impels them toward their first kiss, during which: “Marcus became aware of an elusive scent, a faint flowery overture,” while Lillian thought Marcus “smelled like dust and horses and sunlight…freshly mown hay.”
For Marcus—and even more for Lillian—smell is paramount, but by the end of the book they both have to learn that they each possess non-scent characteristics that the other values. While smell draws them in, it doesn’t make the foundation of their relationship; that is built from their mutual respect, affection and love. However, scent is not always the first attribute of another that attracts us to him or her—the essential quality or impression that first captures our attention doesn’t have to be a smell. It can be a glance, a tone of voice or ease of conversation.
Our bodies are amazingly adaptive, and if you fall in love with someone whose scent at first made you turn away, you might find yourself craving it later. In other words, your desire for someone’s particular smell doesn’t have to lay the groundwork for your love; it can also stem from your love of him or her. Darling Nose, the point is this: if, as you say, you really like your date, but your date smells like old beans…you might begin to like the way old beans smell if you spend enough time with your beloved. Unlike a vampire, your destiny isn’t entirely decided by such an unknowable cause as smell, fate, or even pheromones. You have other desires and aversions that can help you navigate a decision. There isn’t a mystical perfume that can save you from your picky nose—but maybe you can change your nose’s associations.
Do you have a query for The Romanswer? Of course you do! You can reach Brianna via Elissa@RTBookReviews.com. We reserve the right to edit your question for content and clarity. Stay tuned for another Romanswer column next month, and you can find Brianna’s archives here!