A few weeks back, I was contacted by a publicist who wondered if I was interested in participating in what is called a Virtual Book Tour, in which a number of us would read and review a particular novel. Based on the blurb about the novel, I agreed to do so, and read Margot Berwin's Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire.
“I still won’t review a book I don’t like, although to do so would doubtless be amusing for the Ms. Hyde side of me and entertaining for the more malicious class of reader,” Ms. Atwood wrote in the introduction to her essay collection, Moving Targets: Writing with Intent, 1982-2004. She goes on to say that if a book is really bad, it ought not be reviewed at all, or if it’s good but not to her taste, someone else should review it.
This isn’t a bad book, but it’s not a particularly good one. I will stress that it’s mostly not to my taste, which runs the gamut from science fiction to thrillers to hardcore literature, so maybe I'm just being a grump. However though not entranced by it, I see some flashes of delightful ability in the author, enough that I will be quite willing to read a future work by Berwin even though I won’t re-read this particular one.
If you’ve been following the virtual book tour set up for Hothouse Flower, you may have already read the book, or at least know its premise: Lila, the narrator/lead character is newly divorced, lives in New York City, works a sort of dull job in an ad agency, has a bright but dull apartment. She has no commitments—no relationship, no pets, no plants, no real life outside of her McJob—until she buys a tropical plant from a smooth-talking street vendor. She then meets an odd but somewhat intriguing man who has a Laundromat filled with exotic and wonderful plants, and through her own errors in judgment, she causes this man to lose his plants. Her ensuing quest to replace his plant collection leads her to the rainforests of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
The premise is intriguing, and the book blurb sounded promising. And while Berwin writes quite well at times and has a quirkily fun sense of humour, her characters simply don’t work for me. My amusement at some of the dialogue, events and descriptions in the book was completely overshadowed by the characters, none of whom make me care about them even a little bit, and several of whom are reprehensible for no apparent reason related to the storyline. When the little bits profiling each of the plants at the beginning of chapters are the most entertaining parts of the novel, there’s a problem with the work.
At times, there’s a bit of a magic realism feel to events in Hothouse Flower. But unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his One Hundred Years of Solitude or Jack Hodgins’ brilliant romp The Invention of the World, there’s not enough mystery between the covers of Berwin’s novel to make me really wonder about the odd things that do take place here and there. Rather than be fetchingly mysterious and ineffable, they come across as jarringly annoying and contrived, as if the author was trying overly hard to be clever.
Normally, when reviewing a book I avoid any reviews done by others, lest my opinion be in some way coloured by the comments of more learned heads than mine. Because I was completely unfamiliar with Berwin prior to reading Hothouse Flower, I did seek out more information about her. She has said that while this is her first published novel, it’s her third work, and does draw on some aspects of her own experience. Although it spans mere months as opposed to years, Hothouse Flower could be considered a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel of self-development, by an author still fledging her wings. With this in mind, I do genuinely look forward to reading future work by Berwin when she has had a few more years of honing her skills.