About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

114 - Hothouse Flower & the 9 Plants of Desire

Today, waiting around in between out-of-town interviews, I finished Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, by Margot Berwin (Pantheon, 2009). With a title like that, and a garish hot pink cover to boot, how could I resist?

And I'm glad I didn't. Like the rare plants of the title, this one was both highly entertaining and unusual enough in terms of plot to keep me guessing. The bookclubs.ca Reader's Guide describes it as "Eat, Pray, Love meets The Orchid Thief." Not having read the latter, I can't say if that's accurate, but it does hint at the book's intriguing nature. It tells the story of Lila Nova, a NYC advertising copywriter and recent divorcee who's decided that her "small, newly renovated studio with absolutely no character" needs some sprucing up. This decision takes her to the Union Square Greenmarket, where she meets the "rugged country-sexual" Plant Man, David Exley, who persuades her that a Hawaiian bird-of-paradise plant is just the thing. Whether it's David or the plant itself working the mojo, Lila's easily convinced ... but no sooner does she get the plant home than she begins seeing her life in a new light. The first and funniest inkling of this comes in the "Advertising" chapter, when Lila and coworker/ BFF/ surfer dude extraordinare Kody attend a film shoot for a sneaker commercial:
"When the hair and makeup people arrived, Kody and I gathered around to watch them turn the teenaged giant into a supermodel. ...

"The model stripped down naked and stood with her arms out to her sides while her genderless cohorts sprayed her body with large silver canisters of foundation. They wore masks over their faces and sprayed her from head to toe like they were putting out a fire. They airbrushed her into a monotoned six-foot-two column of a human being with no visible veins, nipples, nails, lips, or eyelashes.

"When every single thing that was real about the model was gone, the makeup artist dug through a suitcase of brushes and plowed through undreds of tubes of flesh-colored colors and began to draw human features onto her face. At the same time, the hair stylist meticulously sewed, with a needle and thread, strand after strand of long blond hairs onto her thin light-brown locks, creating a thick, full mane of shimmering gold."
It's on her way home from this very shoot that Lila notices "a most unusual plant" in a store window, and steps inside to find a far more unusual laundromat:
"I opened the door and stepped down onto something squishy. It was moss, velvety smooth, creating uneven hills of emerald green across the floor of the laundry. ...

"Thick grass grew from squares of soil perfectly cut to fit the tops of the industrial-sized washing machines and dryers. Dense pockets of jewel-colored flowers on long, thin stems grew from the grass. There were red poppies, purple bells, and bright-yellow daisies. The laundry looked like a meadow. Like a field of wildflowers.

"Plants were strung across the ceiling in between the tracks of flourescent lights, stretching from one side of the Laundromat to the other. Colorful flowers sprang from the pots and hung down over the benches and folding tables. The pots were hung on invisible fishing line, so the flowers seemed to float in midair.

"The Laundromat was like a jungle where washing machines had been dumped, or maybe a laundry where a jungle had sprung up."
She is drawn into a long chat with the owner, Armand, who offers her a challenge: take a cutting from the fire fern in the window home, make it grow roots, and he'll show her the 9 rare and valuable plants he keeps hidden in the back room -- that is, provided she agrees not to mention them to anyone else. While it doesn't make sense even to her, she is intrigued, and accepts:
"I stared at the cutting on the way home, trying to understand why I didn't throw it away. Or simply drop it on the street. It looked like any other cutting I'd ever seen. It was a basic, four-inch-long green stem with a few random leaves sticking off the sides. But somehow I knew it wasn't like any other cutting. I found myself gripping it more tightly than my bag with my money, phone, and credit cards. ...

"I'm not a superstitious person. I don't even read my horoscope for fun, but I knew I wanted to see those nine plants in the back room of that Laundromat."
In the coming days, Lila cares painstakingly for the fire fern cutting, and returns to Exley's plant stand seeking further exotic adventures, not all of them horticultural. Initially, Exley resists her overtures, but after learning about the fire fern, he changes his mind. Smitten, she reneges on her promise to Armand, and takes Exley to the laundromat on their first date before heading home for a night of unprecedented passion.

Sadly, not only does Exley not call the next day and disappear from the Greenmarket, but on Lila's next trip to the Laundromat, she finds it devastated: shattered windows, uprooted plants and soil everywhere, a hole in the secret back door, and the 9 plants gone without a trace. Exley is clearly at fault, as is Lila herself for leading him there. She offers to repay Armand, but he insists there's only one way she can make up for the loss: come with him to Mexico to replace the plants.

And so begins Lila's odyssey. Armand leaves before she does, so she finds herself driving and then walking alone through the jungles of the Yucatan, working her way towards Armand's second home as best as she can. She is rescued at gunpoint by Diego, a mysterious Huichol shaman sent by Armand who's a bit of a plant man himself ... just before she accidentally tramples on 2 of the 9 mythical plants. From here, the story veers into magical realism reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as Lila must confront demons internal and external to repay her debt and reclaim her identity. The conclusion offers just enough twists and turns to keep the reader on her toes, though one of the plot lines is wrapped up just a bit too neatly for my tastes (and in a way that doesn't quite fit the story otherwise).

The book is tremendously readable, and at 260 pages, not all that long. Funny, thought-provoking, and just a little steamy in parts (at the risk of conflating my Spanish-speaking artists, the combination of the humorous and the erotic reminded me of some of Almodovar's films in places), it's an excellent choice for a damp, drizzly November weekend.

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