By Bruce Jacobs

hot house flowerHothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire
By Margot Berwin
Pantheon ($24.00, 26)

Sometimes a publisher gets a book cover, font, margins, and end papers (the “package”) perfect, and Pantheon has done just that with Margot Berwin’s Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire.  One look at the lush reds and greens and yellows of the jacket highlighting the expressive title, and you know exactly what this novel is all about.  When you unwrap it and find a surprisingly gifted first novel inside, you know you are on to something.

Lila Nova is a recently divorced young woman working in advertising and living in an empty apartment off 14th Street near Union Square.  She is rebuilding after a not so happy marriage and divorce to a man who was “cute and smart and successful…and a huge mistake.  He was a man who drank like a fish and wanted lots of babies.  I was a woman who didn’t want lots of babies and drank like a human being.  I know that most marriages are complex and multi-layered, but ours was not.”  Her post-divorce motto was “no pets, no plants, no people, no problem”…until she meets the plant guy at the Union Square Green Market.

With the sexy, dirty hands of a working gardener, Exley convinces her to take home a bird-of-paradise plant to see if she has the spirit to nurture and grow it.  Of course, the plant thrives, and Lila begins to develop some self-confidence to go with her attraction to this plant guy.  “…it’s pretty easy to get sucked into plants when they are growing well.  They can’t walk away when things aren’t going perfectly; they don’t play bad music, make weird sounds, or dress inappropriately.  They just sort of stand around looking beautiful and succeeding at life, like fashion models.”

Berwin works the single city girl theme pretty cleverly through the first half of the novel as Lila winds up under those loving, dirty hands of Exley before she meets an even more dedicated plant guy, Armand, who runs a laundromat that is a virtual jungle of plants, moss, and tropical exotics.  It is Armand who introduces her to the myth of the “nine plants of desire” when he gives her a cutting from a rare fire fern to see if she has enough of a plant jones to grow a root requiring warmth, dark, and dampness in a New York apartment.  She does, and so begins a saga of adventure and exploration as Lila is reluctantly convinced to accompany Armand to the Yucatan to find the full collection of the nine plants.

When Berwin shifts her story from the city to the jungle, the catty wit of urban Lila changes to the naive spanglish observations of jungle Lila who finds herself in a land of myths, snakes, scorpions, rains, birds, and plants.  What keeps Lila Lila is her way with plants and her obsession with finding a loving, good man…and completing the quest for the nine.

Hothouse Flower rises above the generic because Berwin never lets go of the botanical details of each plant as Lila collects them.  Each has certain characteristics which bring access to those human aspirations of “fortune, power, magic, knowledge, adventure, freedom, immortality, sex, and love;” yet each does so with a very specific chemical or scientific basis.  Humans wouldn’t have made it so long without the properties of plants…and probably wouldn’t have wanted to.  After all, everyone knows that it is to plants we go when we want to get off, get up, get down, get out, get lost and all the other “gets.”  Berwin shows us how plants do this as Lila makes her way from a destroyer of desire to its cultivator.

This first novel works, finally, because while we might agree with Lila’s coworker Kody at the agency that “I think its crazy, scary, unforgivably stupid, dangerous, and kind of moronic to go to Mexico with a guy who runs a laundry on First Avenue,” we also cheer for Lila to find those damn plants and see if they will indeed bring all she desires.  As nearly all quest novels illustrate, the reward is in the search not the result.  In the case of Hothouse Flower, the reward is in the wit, detail, and imagination of Margot Berwin.

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