Combination popular-science book/memoir of a gardener who lost her sense of smell.
The Garden Letter publisher Blodgett (Midwest Top 10 Garden Guide, 2004, etc.) discovered one day that her olfactory sense had gone haywire. All the worst odors she could think of—rotting garbage, decaying flesh, animal waste—were invading her nose in nauseating waves. The author learned from a doctor that her olfactory receptors had been wiped out, probably by the burning blast of an over-the-counter homeopathic nose spray that she had taken to fight off a head cold. What she smelled, the doctor informed her, were actually olfactory hallucinations due to a condition called phantosmia. It was as though her nose and brain were trying desperately to remember what the world smelled like. Within weeks, however, all olfactory sensations ceased, just in time for Christmas. Gone were the aromas of fir branches, candles, cookies and sweets. The progression of her condition into anosmia—total absence of scent—led Blodgett into a black hole as she pondered what she had lost and how hopeless she felt to convey it. Her loss, however, is the reader’s gain, as it inspires by far the best writing in the book. Perhaps overcompensating for the condition, the author became a sponge, soaking up everything she could read and learn about “the primal sense,” from medical research to Proust. Her book, which starts unpromisingly in the chirpy tone of a magazine feature, suddenly develops depth, pathos and poetry as it progresses. Blodgett succeeds in raising awareness about this misunderstood, underappreciated sense and how it heightens the pleasure of being alive, even as it plays a subtle role in keeping us alive. “Smells may be slow to register cognitively,” she writes, “but they operate with superb efficiency subliminally.” So, too, does Blodgett in this book, as she develops from a slightly dizzy suburban gardening enthusiast into a three-dimensional, suffering, intellectual human being.
An uneven book that gains surprising power as it moves toward the end.