I inadvertently became interested in tropical plants because that's what the man at the Union Square Green Market sold me. I used to believe that sentence, but now I know better. Now I know that it was meant to be. Here's how it happened.
And so begins Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, the exotic debut novel by Margot Berwin.
I was about two-thirds of the way through the book when I finally figured out what it reminded me of: one of my crazy, technicolor dreams. You know, the kind filled with fantastical situations and outlandish characters where you blink awake thinking, How in the world did my brain come up with that?
The seed of a dream usually comes from reality—something that happened during the day, a childhood memory, a thought you had while drifting off to sleep. Then, helped along with a hefty dose of superfertilizer known as your subconscious, what grows, at least in my case, is often something along the lines of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Or if you're awake and have the imagination of Margot Berwin, that little seed of reality turns into a seductive adventure of a book. Says Berwin:
I was walking home from a party, it must have been around two in the morning, when I spotted an all-night Laundromat jam-packed with plants. I had an urge to go inside and look around. I was very lucky—the owner was there, and he spoke with me for a long time about where he was from, Colombia, and why his Laundromat was the perfect place to grow plants. He gave me a cutting, and I left. On my ten-block walk home, the structure for the book I'd always wanted to write downloaded into my head. Just like that.
In the heart of New York City, hidden in the back room of an old Laundromat owned by a man named Armand, are nine rare and valuable plants. Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire tells the story of this legendary garden, and the distance thirty-two-year-old advertising copywriter Lila Nova must travel—from the cold, harsh streets of Manhattan to the lush jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula—to claim what is hers.
Not only did Berwin create with this colorful, Indiana Jones-like escapade of romance and intrigue—which is filled with everything from snake charmers and spirit animals to shamans and sexy guys—she invented the legend of the nine plants of desire as well. And throughout the book, her smart sense of humor shines through.
Before each chapter, there's a short introduction to a plant, an idea, or an occupation. First is the Bird-of-Paradise:
Native of South Africa, member of the banana family, prized for its tall, highly colored structures. This plant is not for the easily disappointed, impatient, or bossy, as it can take seven years to produce a single bloom. Perfect for the person who gives and gives without getting anything in return. You know who you are.
The story begins on a frigid, late March day, when Lila decides to walk across the street to the green market and buy a plant for her post-divorce, plain white box of an apartment. The 'rugged country-sexual' plant guy, who turns out to be one of the main characters, decides she needs a bird-of-paradise.
"Six or seven years? My marriage didn't last that long. Do you have anything that flowers sooner, like in a week or two?"
"This is the plant for you," he said. "She's a beauty."
"Thirty dollars, and I'll throw in a brochure on rare tropicals so you know how to care for her."
"Three zero? I could go to the deli on the corner and get a dozen roses for ten dollars that have great big sweet-smelling flowers on them right now."
"You could, but they'd be dead in a week. You'd have to buy new ones every Saturday. If you do the math, I'm a bargain. And besides, this bird is tropical. Think balmy ocean brezes, swaying palm trees, cabana boys, and pina colads on white sand beaches near warm light-blue water."
I don't know whether it was the pina coladas, the cabana boys, or the sky blue of his eyes, but as a person who worked in advertising, I had to respect a good sales pitch.
"Come back if her leaves start turning yellow around the edges."
"They better not," I said over my shoulder. "For thirty dollars they better stay bright freakin' green."
When asked what she hopes readers will take away or learn from her book, Berwin said:
I hope that readers will take a peek behind the veil and notice the magical side of life. I hope that they become or remain excited about all the twists and turns life can take and that they feel maybe just a tiny bit more connected to the earth and all of its inhabitants.
Released in June, Hothouse Flower was touted as a sizzling summer beach read. As we head into winter, I would say it's the perfect snowstorm book. Cozy up with your favorite quilt and get ready for a sultry, wild ride.
Would you like to win a copy of Hothouse Flower? The Laundromat that Armand runs is a completely magical place, and as a gardener, I especially loved it:
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. I slipped off my silver ballet flats, and my feet sank into the floor. . . 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.
Plants were strung across the ceiling in between the tracks of fluorescent lights, stretching from one side of the Laundromat to the other. Colorful flowers sprang from the posts 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. It was such a tangle of plants and machines it was hard to tell which came first.
To enter the giveaway, leave a comment in this post and tell us either a Laundromat story (I know there have to be some good ones out there), or about a magical place you've seen, near where you live or somewhere in your travels. What is it like, and how did you discover it? And if you don't have a story because you've managed to make it this far in life without ever having been in a Laundromat, tell us that!
One entry per person, please. I moderate comments, so if I'm away from the computer it may be a while before yours actually appears. You can enter through next Wednesday, November 3rd, and I'll pick a random winner. Please make sure I have a way to get a hold of you to tell you that you've won; for example, if you have a Blogger profile, is it public and does it list your correct e-mail address? Sorry, but the book can only be shipped to a U.S. or Canadian address.
Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire by Margot Berwin; Vintage Contemporaries; paperback, 304 pages, $14.95.
Hothouse Flower book website (includes the first chapter, a reading group guide, and a fun little trailer for the book—turn your speakers on!)
Other book reviews on Farmgirl Fare:
The Little Big Book of Comfort Food (readers talk pie!—and a Honey Peanut Butter Cookie Recipe from the book)
America's Best BBQ (I share my all natural barbecue sauce recipe and readers talk about their favorite 'cue)
Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings (readers share their animal rescue stories)
Keeping the Feast (and how food helped readers through tough times)
The Laws of Harmony (readers share favorite food novels)
Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant (and what readers eat when alone)
Local Breads (and my favorite Four Hour Parisian Daily Baguette Recipe)
Cooking with Shelburne Farms (& Lamb Burgers w/ Red Pepper Olive Relish)
Comfort Food (readers share favorite comfort food stories & recipes)
The Cornbread Gospels (readers share cornbread memories & recipes)
The Artist's Palate (a beautiful cookbook for food and art lovers)
Falling Cloudberries (Greek Leg of Lamb & readers talk food/travel)
The Vegetable Gardener's Bible (my favorite gardening book)
© 2010 FarmgirlFare.com, the plant loving foodie farm blog where Farmgirl Susan shares recipes, stories, and photos from her crazy country life on 240 remote Missouri acres—and the publisher provided review and giveaway copies of Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire as a part of the TLC book tour.