SPOILER WARNING: Contains spoilers for much of the first third of the book, and one spoiler regarding the end of the book, though I promise the last one doesn't really count as a spoiler.If I had known what this book was about, I would never have signed up to read it. This could be relevant later, so try to keep it in mind.
Back in mid-July, Mr. Brown Thumb, via his @GardenBloggers Twitter account, posted a link advertising a free book in exchange for a review, open to garden bloggers. The original post has been taken down, so I don't know what, specifically, it said. If there was a plot summary, I missed it. The title of the book was Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, which to my hopeful and naive ears sounded like it was going to be about nine plants. I envisioned fun-but-meaningful nonfiction about, you know, Important Plants in History or whatever: cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, rubber, that sort of thing. No word which plants, or what the focus was going to be, but hey. It's free, I have a blog, I can read, why not.
And in my defense, the similar-sounding The Botany of Desire was more or less exactly about that, except four plants instead of nine. Nine Plants of Desire, Botany of Desire -- same thing, right?
So when I opened the package on August 2 and saw Hothouse Flower: A Novel on the front cover, in Barbie-aisle pink lettering, I panicked a little. I may even have said no, no, no, no, no aloud: I don't remember. The panic intensified when I flipped the book over and read, on the back cover:
Recovering from a heartbreaking divorce, Lila has a simple mantra: no pets, no plants, no people, no problems. But when Lila meets David Exley, a ruggedly handsome plant seller, her lonely life blossoms into something far more colorful.Which looks at first glance like it's going to be the Lifetime Original Movie formula of the Damaged Woman Who Learns To Love Again Thanks To A Strong Yet Sensitive Hunk Who Sweeps Her Off Her Feet And Teaches Her To Love Herself Again, When, Suddenly: Babies! Thousands Of Them! or something along those lines.
I seriously considered trying to locate another blogger to hand the book off to. 'Cause that book is not my thing.
But before I did that, I wanted to check to see whether it was really as bad as I'd feared, so I read a few pages. It didn't blow me away or anything, but there were plants involved. I approve of plants. Also there were ruggedly handsome plant sellers, which I also approve of ruggedly handsome plant sellers. So I calmed down a little and read some more. And the first sixty-five pages went more or less okay. In a nutshell:
Our protagonist-narrator is Lila Nova, thirty-two years old, who works in advertising. She's just off of a divorce that was less traumatic, apparently, than just really, really unexpected: the marriage lasted four years, and then her emotionally-distant husband -- who had been emotionally-distant throughout -- told her he was leaving. We don't get much for details about the marriage, nor do we want any, because who has time to rehash the boring, painful past when there are hunky-yet-sensitive, ruggedly-handsome plant dealers ahead, but apparently the whole thing was deeply traumatic and painful in that blank, detail-less way that personal trauma never actually is.
Lila is thereafter sort of a wreck, imagining that her doorman pities her for her 32-year-old, manless, childless condition, which makes the simple process of getting in and out of her building fraught with emotional peril, bless her heart. I was worried for a while that this patheticness was accidental, and I was supposed to assume automatically that the only important thing in every woman's life is to find a man, marry him in a large, elaborate church wedding, and start having his babies, as per the Lifetime formula, but it's a deliberate characterization choice, and people comment on her desperation later. That may or may not make it better, but at least it's not accidental.
Lila meets a man, David Exley, who is the aforementioned hunky-yet-sensitive, ruggedly-handsome-non-metrosexual-manly-studly-man-with-a-heart-of-gold,1 when she purchases a plant from him for her new, post-divorce place, which has full southern exposure all day long and floor-to-ceiling windows. She asks for recommendations, and Exley suggests a bird-of-paradise, Strelitzia reginae, promising her flowers in five to seven years and telling her it's from Hawaii.
So we're only at the top of the third page of the text and already we have problems.2 283 more pages to go. I continued to read, knuckles whitening.
One day, Lila happens upon a plant-filled laundromat owned by a peculiar older man named Armand, who is nice to her and gives her a cutting of an Oxalis hedysaroides rubra, or "fire fern." Armand says things like "The fire fern spoke to you straight through the glass" and has a secret back room containing Nine Super Special Mystical Magical Plants that he won't let Lila see, the nine plants of desire from the title. If she can get the Oxalis to root, he says, maybe he'll show them to her. (Even in context, this manages to sound like a euphemism for something filthy.)
Long story short, it roots, and Lila eventually tells Exley about it, and the Oxalis is so crazy valuable in the world of the book that he offers her $500 for the rooted cutting (Exley, besides being as excitable as a Jack Russell terrier puppy, is also unfamiliar with the internet, or he would know that Logees sells rooted 2.5-inch pots of O. hedysaroides rubra for $9.95.3), and gets her to tell him where this laundromat is, and she accidentally lets slip that there are Nine Super Special Mystical Magical Plants in a back room. So of course he, being excitable, and also (surprise twist!) a bad human being, then breaks into the laundromat to steal the nine plants, with a good deal of gratuitous destruction in the process (One is surprised that Berwin didn't give him a moustache to twirl. Moustaches are country, right?), which of course makes Lila feel very bad. Armand's surprising solution (surprising because it's completely ridiculous) is to make Lila come with him on a trip to the Yucatan, in Mexico, to find and replace these magical nine plants.
And this is the realistic (-ish) part of the story. I'm not sure whether my disbelief-suspenders snapped at the $500 cutting, or at Armand's solution to the destruction being to just go to Mexico to get replacements, which is just as nonsensical, if more subtly.4 But somewhere around this point, I knew the book and I were not going to get along.
From here on, the book stops pretending to have much to do with reality. Indeed, by about p. 128, Book and Reality are standing in the middle of the street in the pouring rain at 2 in the morning, knife trembling in the sobbing Book's hand as she screams obscenities against Reality loud enough to wake the neighbors, who call the cops. And then eventually the cops show up and take Reality to jail and we never hear or see him again.
What Berwin does is, she takes the picture she's sketched for us in the first 70-90 pages, and turns the contrast and color saturation knobs up as high as they'll go. Nothing from here on out is ordinary. You don't just see a big rattlesnake, you see a rattlesnake with a head bigger than Lila's, coiled on itself in a stack of snake four or five feet high. When a new character, Diego, is introduced, he's not just a good-looking man, he's "the single most beautiful man [Lila] had ever seen." Diego's not just a keen observer of nature; he can ask specific questions of deer (to get directions to a specific plant) and get accurate, fast answers. And so on. This does make the story vivid and memorable, but what you get when you draw everything in basic, flat shapes and color everything brightly is a cartoon, and the book was plenty cartoony already.
Speaking of basic, flat shapes: you can sort of tell that the book was written with a movie in mind (or at least I thought it read like a movie5). The characters are mostly familiar stereotypes we've all come to know and love: the Exotic, Tightly-Muscled, Dark-Skinned Foreigner Who Is Magic Because He's Deeply Connected To Nature (Native American Version); the Petite, Mystical Dragon Lady; the Bleach-Blond Surfer Dude. Also the plot relies on ridiculous coincidences and certain ongoing stylistic tics6 in order to (barely) function, which is quite movie-like. Although there are no car chases, there are explosions. Sorta. Unfortunately I can't tell you about them more specifically, because there's no way to describe the scene without ruining a portion of the ending, but to me it read as so over the top that it was basically camp. If it helps, I have to watch James Bond films as basically camp, too, and Berwin has said she was aiming for an adventure story sort of thing, and you don't get much more adventurey than James Bond. So -- mission accomplished?
The movie resemblance isn't entirely bad. Though the plot doesn't withstand any kind of critical thought after the fact and is a veritable engine for producing Refrigerator Moments, the ridiculousness of it all also means that pretty much anything can happen at any time, so there are all kinds of outrageous twists and turns which are in fact legitimately entertaining and compelling. It's a quick read, and you never feel for a second like you know what's coming next, which is arrived at dishonestly but is still an accomplishment. And once you catch on to the fact that the story isn't occurring in this world, but is instead a story from some parallel, much more interesting, world where every plant is representative of female sexuality,7 everyone's a telepath, a houseful of furniture can be made by a single person in a matter of hours,8 anyone meeting an unmarried 32-year-old woman automatically pities and scorns her, and mail-order plant-purchasing hasn't been invented yet, it's not so bad. Things happen, it's unpredictable, and even if it's not remotely realistic, it's at least entertaining.
A lot of the other reviewers have made a point of saying that they do not like Lila. Specifically, they say, she's passive and lets the men tell her what to do all the time. This is true, but I didn't have a problem with that. To develop a character, the character has to start somewhere, after all, and I'd rather hang out with her for an hour than any of the other characters.9 She gets in a bit of dry humor (I most love Lila on page 100, where she and I had the same thought at the same moment), and although she does get a bit of humiliation for it, I have to approve of her on principle for being unapologetic about wanting to have sex. So much of the time in movies/books/TV/whatever the dynamic is, the man wants to have sex, but the woman doesn't because she'll be Sullied! Forever! so the man has to bribe and plead and generally wear her down until she finally gives in. At which point then everybody calls her a slut for giving in, or she gets married so people won't call her a slut, or whatever. In Hothouse Flower this dynamic is at least partly subverted: Lila gets to want sex, and the men get to demur. Though there is some tongue-clucking about how desperate and BOY CRAZY she is, nobody seems to think it's unusual or unseemly for an adult woman to want to have some consensual sex with another adult. So thumbs up for that.
A lot of the other reviews (There's a list of the other reviews here, several of which are written by other garden bloggers, and about 2/3 of which are positive) have mentioned the plant information as being interesting, that it adds something to the book. I agree, and I was actually impressed that a lot of it was fairly accurate, if sometimes a bit distorted, like I said in footnote 2. Berwin did some research, and this makes me happy. There is one particularly horrible factual error, though, on page 95, that needs to be smacked down hard like . . . um . . . like a really smackable antelope10 or something. The error in question:
[Orchids] don't need soil. They don't need fertilizer. They don't even need a pot to grow in. All they need is air. . . . They're about as hard to grow as grass . . .This is wrong. Really wrong. In fact it reaches nearly George-Bushian levels of wrongness, and will one day be published in the textbooks of graduate-level History of Wrongness classes, is how wrong it is. Some orchids don't need soil. All orchids need fertilizer to some degree or another. Some orchids don't need a pot. No orchid can survive on air alone. (Water is also important, remember?) And of course some (most?) of them are much, much harder to grow than grass. I mean, props to Berwin for researching at all, and I give her credit for usually being more or less right with the plant stuff, but that particular bit is trouble.
For a while, I thought my main problem with Hothouse Flower must be the magic realist element, that things happened in the book that wouldn't actually happen in life. When I thought about it more, though, I realized that couldn't be my problem, because I'm not a stickler for realism in my TV viewing or my other reading. I mean, some of my favorite shows are "Eureka," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Battlestar Galactica," and "Dead Like Me," none of which follow the established laws of physics, biology, etc. I'm fine with magic. What I eventually realized was that the characters are the problem.
Armand and Diego spend most of their time teasing Lila, about different things, and in different ways, but it's still teasing: they never actually treat Lila as an equal, someone who might have interesting thoughts and experiences of her own.11 Exley really is just a one-dimensional Bad Guy without redeeming qualities (even his plant-care advice is suspect). Sonali (Armand's wife) and Kody (Lila's coworker) are both semi-likeable, though I found myself confused about why Kody, who seems to more or less like and respect Lila, is never considered as a romantic prospect. I mean, he has a penis: what else is there? At the very least she could invite him over a lot, to reassure the doorman. (You know how Carlos worries.) And in any case we spend very little of the book with Sonali and Kody, so that only helps a little.
By the end of the story, of our four main characters (Lila, Exley, Armand, Diego), only one has been significantly changed by the events of the book, and it's not in the sense of having become wiser or stronger or more empathetic as a person. The other three have had experiences, yes: mind-blowing, life-changing, near-death sorts of experiences. Lila's nearly killed one person (accidentally), and watched someone else die in an exceptionally vivid and gruesome way (also more or less accidental). She's been close to death several times herself. But everybody's still the same people they were when we first met them. I know it's an adventure story, but you can have action and character development at the same time.
And then. Then, we get one big reveal that basically unravels the entire book, about fifteen pages from the end, which had me variously grinding my teeth in frustration, throwing the book at the wall, cursing Berwin, Mr. Brown Thumb, and everybody else who had a hand in me reading this book, and weeping, openly, like a tiny baby.12 This will look like a spoiler, but it's not actually that big in context.
Armand lets slip on p. 274 that he actually had multiple cuttings of the Nine Plants13 back in New York the whole time, the entire trip to replace them was a deception, and (most alarmingly) that he'd intended to keep her in Mexico until she found the tenth Plant of Desire, however long that took.14 He doesn't give her so much as a "sorry I repeatedly put you in mortal danger," either.
And once you start tugging on that particular thread, the entire book falls apart. Armand already knew a Magic Indian Who Can Ask Deer For Directions To Plants. Why would he need Lila in the first place? And, if the deer don't know, and Armand does need Lila, he still didn't need any plants but just the one special tenth one, so what's the point of dragging Lila around with him to collect the other nine first? Just tell her about number ten and turn her loose, right? Why waste everybody's time? And so on. The whole damned book unwrites itself at p. 274.
The reason my telling you about this doesn't really count as a spoiler is because it has no consequences whatsoever. After Armand makes this admission, instead of pulling a Taser out of her purse and shocking his ass into unconsciousness, tying him up while he's out, and running as fast as she possibly can to the nearest police station to have him arrested for kidnapping and god knows what else, like she should have done, Lila just chuckles and the two of them talk about what a wonderful adventure the whole thing's been, how lucky she is to have found Twoo Wuv with Diego, and how much she wants to stay in Mexico with Armand and Diego forever.
At which point Armand tells her he's bought her a ticket back to New York the next day, so she should go say bye to Diego.
OH MY GOD MARGOT BERWIN WHY DO YOU HAAAAAAATE ME?15
So yeah. Refrigerator Moments, one after another. I didn't even notice p. 274 until I was making a final proofreading/polishing run through the post on Tuesday afternoon. And then I was like, holy shit, Armand is a fucking sociopath! Does Lila know? Ohmygod does Berwin know? Does this mean the real-life Armand is also a psycho?16 Is Berwin in danger? Should I be calling the police? What in the sun-dappled hell just happened here?
So. [deep breath]
I really and truly tried to like it. Really, really hard. I tried to appreciate it on its own terms, and made significant progress for a while, I think, for a book I would ordinarily never have picked up in the first place. It's not without its positive qualities. But Sweet Holy Carlos The Doorman, I cannot recommend this book to anybody.
Photo credits: All photos my own except the book cover (which I guess comes from Random House, ultimately), the Strelitzia, as noted in the text, and the headdesk photo, which appears to be a screencap from "The Colbert Report." It came up repeatedly in a Google image search for "headdesk," so I used it.
Hat tip to The Indoor Garden(er), for alerting me to the existence of the IMDB.com page.
1 The words "rugged country-sexual" are used on page 4, approvingly. In context, it's clear enough what this is supposed to signify -- a macho but soft-spoken, strong but gentle, handsome but not overly coiffed guy who nobody would ever think was gay in a million years, unlike the metrosexuals (people are still using the word "metrosexual?") surrounding Lila in New York -- but as a person who actually lives in rural middle America, i.e., "the country," I'd like to let Ms. Berwin know that genuine "country-sexual" is veeeeeeeeeeeery different from what she's picturing. I'm just saying.
2 Even in really good light, like Lila apparently has in her apartment, flowers aren't likely indoors. It's not, strictly speaking, impossible, but I would be very, very surprised. This might just be Exley trying to make the sale, of course. Also the Hawaii thing is wrong no matter how you look at it -- Strelitzia cut flowers could, conceivably, be flown into New York from Hawaii, but an actual potted plant almost certainly comes from Florida, because everything always comes from Florida, unless Florida is frozen or under water, as happens occasionally.
Also, the species comes from South Africa, which we know because just two pages before this, in the plant-related paragraph which introduces the chapter, Berwin tells us that it's from South Africa. It's not clear whether Berwin's confused about the origin of the species -- unlikely, since several times I was ready to pounce on something botanical I was just sure had to have been a mistake, and when I looked it up, I found out that Berwin was right and I was wrong -- or if this is supposed to be a subtle way of saying that Exley's not trustworthy. If it's the latter, then I'm surprised Berwin didn't point it out to the reader later in the book.
The least interesting explanation is that Berwin just thought it more colorful and exotic for a potted plant to be flown across half an ocean and a whole continent than to be trucked up I-95 from Florida. It is indeed more colorful, but it's also way, way less plausible. Similar problems happen later on, with a Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) "from China" and a croton "from Jamaica." In the case of the Trachycarpus, Exley actually says it was shipped from China. Sorry, but no it wasn't. Not if Lila can afford to buy it.
3 Though delivery to New York City is $10 for 6-9 day delivery, and $21 for 2-day delivery, which is outrageous for a single 2.5-inch plant. Especially considering that Logees is in fucking Connecticut, just 3 hours away by I-95. Perhaps the plants are delivered in a limousine. But my point is that Exley is only a three-hour drive away from all the Oxalis hedysaroides rubra he could ever want, and I'm pretty sure you can get from New York to Connecticut for less than $500. So he's an idiot.
4 For reasons which should be perfectly obvious to anybody who knows anything about anything, countries frown on people coming in to dig up their endangered plants, which some of the "nine plants of desire" happen to be. Even if none of them were endangered, the U.S. doesn't want people bringing plant products into the country, either, this being how plant diseases and pests get spread, not to mention invasive species. So both of the central events in this part of the book -- Exley's theft of the plants and Lila and Armand's trip to the Yucatan to replace them -- are both so contrived and unlikely as to make the entire story ridiculous.
5 You don't have to believe me. But I really had guessed this. It was confirmed in the comments of one of the other reviews: the book has been optioned for adaptation into a movie by Sony Pictures. That doesn't mean the movie will ever get made, but it could. (It has an imdb.com page already.) Whether or not I'd go see it if it did would mostly depend on the casting. Julia Roberts has apparently already claimed the role of Lila, which makes me want to see it a little less, but Bradley Cooper or Alan Tudyk for Exley would bring me right back on board again. Neither is particularly rugged, but a little stubble, a little CGI, and I'm sure you could turn either one into the Marlboro Man. So.
6 The most problematic two being:
A) every character who isn't Lila can read Lila's mind. She'll think something, and then another character will respond to the thing she thought, even though she hasn't said it out loud and it's not a particularly obvious thing to be thinking in the situation. Once or twice, this trick can be used to good effect, by making people seem magical or mystically-connected -- we've all had those moments -- but when everybody can do it all the time, you start to think that maybe Lila only thinks she's thinking silently to herself and in fact announces her every thought aloud without realizing it, and this whole tale is actually the delirious rambling of a heavily-medicated woman in a padded room, in an institution whose library contains only books about plants and some Lifetime movies recorded on VHS.
B) Characters are frequently described in ways that make no sense. I'm not talking about cliched character descriptions, or vague descriptions, I'm talking about nonsensical descriptions. At one point lateish in the book, Exley -- oh yeah, Exley comes back -- is described as "He's a man who knows about hidden doorways. He knows about openings, and about the spaces in between things. He knows how to slip in and out of those spaces." This is meant to come across as profound and mystical, I think, but I can't even parse what this would mean in a mystical context. I mean, being able to fit through openings which are large enough to fit through is neither a personality trait nor a special skill, and you don't need to be attuned to the universe in order to do it. Plus by this point we've seen enough of Exley to know perfectly well what sort of person he is, so telling us that he must pass between solid objects, instead of going through them, is really not that informative.
7 Oh yeah. Basically every time a new plant is brought up, it's described as being able to reflect, intensify, or otherwise refer to female sexuality. This happens often enough that after a while I wanted to throw up my hands and say jeez, Margot, we get it, okay, it's a sexxxay book. Stop dropping the anvils already.
Also the one main sex scene, though fairly brief, is kind of agonizing. Sex scenes are famously hard to write, sex being extremely subjective, so I'm inclined to give it a pass, but you wouldn't believe the dialogue if I told you.
And then there's a dream sequence that some reviewers have objected to on the assumption that it was supposed to be sexy but wasn't. I'm not that bothered by it because I'm willing to give Berwin the benefit of the doubt: maybe she wasn't aiming for sexy. Even if she was, though, see above re: sexy writing being difficult.
8 A throwaway line on p. 211. It doesn't appear to be a joke, in context, and as best as I can recall, it's never even mentioned again, so I have no idea what it's doing there. It may be my favorite detail in the whole book, though, because it's so absurd that I find it hysterically funny. I picture the character's daily routine going something like: Get up. Make coffee. Drink coffee. Gather leaves for new furniture. Dispose of all of the old furniture. Weave a houseful of brand-new furniture. Shower. Get dressed. . . .
9 Exley would probably be my second choice -- we could always talk about plants -- though I'd have to choose my words carefully. I wouldn't know what might get him wound up, and if I said the wrong thing, then the next morning I might find out that my favorite garden center had been robbed, vandalized, and burnt to cinders.
Ideally, I'd also have enough advance notice about our meeting to order and receive a big box of Oxalis from Logees first.
10 (Rhetorical only: I do not advocate the smacking of antelopes. Though there are some out there who are asking for it.)
11 I actually wonder a bit if the tendency of the reviewers to hate on Lila isn't because of the example set by Armand, Exley, and Diego.
12 Exaggerated for comic effect. The teeth-grinding did happen; the book-throwing did not; the cursing is ongoing. The weeping is exaggerated, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't moved to a bit of despair for the human condition.
13 In this universe, all plants are propagatable by cuttings -- Strelitzia, bromeliads, orchids, Zamia, everything. If only.
14 Which is all the more alarming because two pages, just two pages, before, Exley had accused Armand of manipulating Lila just so he could find the Tenth Plant, and points out that Armand has endangered Lila's life several times over, and Diego's at least once, just for this stupid plant, and Armand doesn't really care about Lila at all, etc. And Armand is denying it and telling Lila no, Exley's a crazy person, a bad guy, don't listen to him, he lies, yada yada. But Exley was in fact dead fucking on. I mean, we don't know how Exley knew. I suppose the safe bet is telepathy, considering. But he wasn't wrong.
15 (I mean: why did Margot Berwin hate me before I wrote this review. 'Cause I can totally understand if she hates me afterward.)
16 There's a real-life "good friend" named Armand, whom the character is named for. Whether the real person is also a manipulative, selfish bastard with a callous disregard for the lives and feelings of others, I don't know. Probably not. Though if one of Berwin's family members happens to read this, maybe you could please do a background check or something? For me? Just a little one.