Saturday, October 1st, 2016

Travel/Adventure Book Review: Hothouse Flower

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TLC Book Tours were kind enough to invite Adventurous Kate to host a stop on the tour for Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire by Margot Berwin.  The hosts for this online book tour are book bloggers, gardening bloggers and travel bloggers.

As a former short fiction editor, I was eager to finally review a full-length novel. The summary:

In the heart of New York City, hidden in the back room of an old Laundromat, are nine rare and valuable plants. Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire tells the story of this legendary garden, and the distance one woman must travel—from the cold, harsh streets of Manhattan to the lush jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula—to claim what is hers.

Lila Nova lives alone in a plain, white box of an apartment. Recovering from a heartbreaking divorce, Lila’s life is like her home: simple, new, and empty. But when she meets a handsome plant-seller named David Exley, an entire world opens up before her eyes. Late one night Lila stumbles across a strange Laundromat and sees ferns so highly-prized that a tiny cutting can fetch thousands of dollars. She learns about flowers with medicinal properties to rival anything found in drugstores. And she hears the legend of nine mystical plants that bring fame, fortune, immortality, and passion.

The owner of the Laundromat, Armand, presents Lila with a test: if she can make the cutting from a fire fern grow roots, he will show her the secret of his locked room. But Lila is too trusting, and with one terrible mistake she ruins her chance to see Armand’s plants. The only way to win it back is to travel, on her own, to the Yucatan. Deep in the rain forests of Mexico, Lila enters a world of shamans and spirit animals, snake charmers, and sexy, heart-stopping Huichols. Alone in the jungle, Lila is forced to learn more than she ever wanted to know about nature—and about herself.

Initially, I pictured the author as delicate and fragile as one of the exotic plants in her novel.  I didn’t want to bruise a debut novelist.

Then when I saw that the book has been translated into 15 languages and optioned by Sony Pictures, I decided that I owed it to my readers and the public to give an objective review.

I can see why some women would enjoy this book: it promises adventure, mystery and romance, all set in an exotic destination. However, Hothouse Flower is the kind of book that I would never choose for myself.

Empty Characters

Lila, the narrator and protagonist, has zero personality traits. In fact, Lila is so empty that she makes Bella from Twilight, the ultimate blank slate, look like Chelsea Handler on an ecstasy trip.  At least Bella has “clumsiness.”

Strangely, though the novel is written in the first person, the author rarely describes Lila’s emotions. Things happen to her and in front of her; she takes action without noting how anything makes her feel.  Take this passage:

The Cashier unlocked the clip, aimed the gun, pulled the trigger, and shot the dog right between the eyes. Mallorey slumped to the ground with a whimper.  Blood poured out of the hole in her head, turning the dusty road underneath her black and wet.

I stood there, stoned and shaking.  I bent down next to the dog and held her head in my hands.  I pressed my face onto her blood-soaked face and started to cry.

Something’s missing here: emotion.  Up until this point, Lila displays no emotion beyond guilt and sexual desire, then has this dramatic physical reaction.  The combination is perplexing.  Considering that Lila showed no affection toward the dog before it was killed, I find it hard to believe that she would be grieved to the point of pressing her face into a dead animal’s bloody skull.

Furthermore, I’m not sure why Lila is divorced.  Her ex-husband is mentioned only briefly, when she tells Exley that he was an alcoholic, and then his existence is forgotten for the rest of the book.  I’m not expecting Lila to sob on the bathroom floor every night like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, but couldn’t she have at least hinted at heartbreak?

However, what disturbs me the most about Lila is that every decision she makes is at the bidding of the male characters: the laundromat owner, Armand; her first paramour, Exley; and the alluring Huichol man she meets in Mexico, Diego.

The problem is that none of these characters have any redeeming qualities, making Lila’s fascination with them inexplicable.  Armand is eccentric, and Exley and Diego are good-looking, but none of the three men show Lila kindness, compassion, or warmth at any point in the novel.  In fact, I found all three of them to be quite patronizing toward her.

By the end of the book, there is no transformation or growth for Lila: she is still the same vacant character she was on the first page, as blank as the white walls of her studio apartment.

Image: fra.ps

Fantasy Without Structure

There is quite a bit of fantasy in this novel, and it’s a tricky literature genre.  Fantasy requires rules, structure and believability.

For example, when Lila first arrives at Armand’s house in the jungle, there are scorpions crawling throughout the house.  They’re so prevalent, in fact, that she is instructed to carry a spatula with her at all times to kill them.  Yet by the end of the book, she’s crawling on her hands and knees in the jungle late at night, and scorpions are somehow no longer a threat.

Why?  Because the power of the jungle is in her now?  That’s not enough.

The Cashier is able to go from lying down to standing without bending her legs.  Lila goes into trances and has wishes granted by animal spirits.  Through it all, Armand, Diego and even Exley are somehow able to read Lila’s thoughts.

It’s a kitchen sink of ambiguous, nonsensical plot lines, and it’s easy for the author to throw several of these at the novel and chalk it up to “magic.”  It’s also easy to have the culprit in a murder mystery kill everyone because he’s “crazy.”  Just because it’s possible, it doesn’t mean that it makes good fiction.

Finally, without giving away too many details, the truth about the nine plants of desire is revealed, and it creates an enormous hole in the plot.

Ill-Fitting Metaphors

If a paragraph had more than four sentences, it’s likely one of them contained an absurd metaphor or simile.  I found this to be an incredibly distracting tactic used throughout the novel. A few examples:

I couldn’t help noticing how strong [Diego] looked, and how tan his skin was.  He looked like he’d never spent a single day in an office in Manhattan staring at a computer, swiveling around in a chair with headphones on.

Well, obviously he’s never worked in a Manhattan office!  He’s an Amerindian shaman’s son from the Yucatan jungle!

Lourdes collected the butterflies that landed on Diego’s body…So many monarchs landed on Diego, he looked like he was wearing a velvet suit.

No, he looked like a guy covered with butterflies.  If I wanted to see a velvet suit, I’d type “Mickey Rourke” into Google Images.

…we were on our way from Puerto Juarez to Costa Maya, across water so electric-blue it looked as if someone had dumped a vat of Ty-D-Bol into it.  It was a color I didn’t realize the earth could make without the help of human beings.

You’re describing the most beautiful ocean you’ve ever seen and of all the objects in the world, you compare it to a toilet?!

Image: Aube insanite

Sensuality Misses the Mark

Early in the book, Lila and Exley pot a plant together and then, his hands still covered in dirt, proceed to have what is described as incredibly hot sex.  Am I the only one who was thinking about urinary tract infections?

In that same scene, Exley brushes her breasts with a baby brush and tells her that he’s growing her before “planting himself inside of [her].”

Later in the book, Diego’s older mother orders Lila to strip, covers her in pheromone-infused oils, and rubs her nipples.

I’m sorry, are these scenes supposed to turn on straight female readers?  I cringed through every sex scene.

And then there was this passage:

I dreamt that I was in the house that I lived in as a child.  I was lying on my small single bed in my old room, and I was making love to an exquisite creature.  A beautiful black panther. I was lying on top of the panther, its front paws wrapped around my back, and its hind legs around my thighs.

No, no, no, NO.

Frankly, I found this book to be a sad reminder that some women will read anything.

What I Enjoyed

That said, some things worked well.  I loved learning about tropical plants, their alternate uses, and the aficionados who love them.  I don’t own any plants myself, so reading about them was like discovering a community that I never knew existed.

Beyond that, I absolutely loved the idea of a mysterious New York City laundromat filled with tropical plants that thrive in steam and humidity.  The author based the laundromat on one she found in the East Village, and it was a brilliant setting for a novel.  It’s a shame that so little of the book takes place there.

Ultimately, I think that Hothouse Flower has the potential to be a good movie.  If totally gutted and anesthetized, as many novels-turned-films are, it could be reworked into a decent romantic comedy.

Giveaway Time!

TLC Book Tours would like to give away a copy of Hothouse Flower to one of my readers!  To be considered for the giveaway, please 1) leave a comment on this post saying so and 2) become a fan of Adventurous Kate on Facebook.

I received a complimentary copy of Hothouse Flower from TLC Book Tours.

Comments

31 Responses to “Travel/Adventure Book Review: Hothouse Flower”
  1. Good, balanced review. Totally know what you mean about some books being potentially better when adapted as movies: I think “The Devil Wears Prada” was a great example of that. Even so, I’d totally be up to enter the giveaway, to check the book out firsthand!

    • TKOG — I completely agree. I think The Devil Wears Prada was much, much better as a film than it was as a book! I think a big part of that was that the authors based Miranda Priestly so literally on Anna Wintour, even when it didn’t make believable fiction. The screenwriters rewrote Miranda Priestly into a much more interesting character.

  2. Shannon says:

    Great review Kate! I think it’s very thorough and probably not as snarky as you think. It doesn’t sound like the kind of book I would read, but I’m glad you found at least the plant aspect interesting. Even if I don’t like a book, if I can take something away from it, it’s not a total waste.

    I like my fluffy books, I’ll admit it, but I’m not sure this is my kind of fluff. 😉

  3. The Missus says:

    I think this was a very fair review. Doesn’t sound like my type of book either. But I would probably love the movie.

  4. Amy says:

    Geez! This is exactly the kind of “literature” (loosely used) that gives the degrading phrase “chick lit” some validity. As someone who can’t stand the idea of Twilight’s Bella making her way into the brains of impressionable young tween girls, I think this protagonist sounds like a nightmare for the adult set. The same goes for the male characters treating her with scorn and condescension. I’ve studied the role of gender politics in literature a great deal while earning my master’s, and the combination of empty female protagonist + indifferent male power is sadly common, but it certainly shouldn’t be perpetuated today. Even if you ignore the horror of an emotionless, vapid protagonist (that is enough to make me put the book down right there, honestly) the idea of those awkward sex scenes, especially the mother rubbing her nipples and the panther sex dream (!!!!!!!!), is enough to make me run screaming for the hills. I also agree that fantasy needs some structure – I enjoy fantasy to a point, but this sounds a little ridiculous – you have to make the reader believe in your made-up world, and this sounds jarring and brow-furrowing, and not in a good way. The scorpion thing would bother me too. Ick.

    Thanks for the review – I like to read the book first if I have even a remote interest in seeing a film based on one, and this is one novel-turned-movie I will definitely skip. Yikes!

    • YES. I don’t read much fantasy, but it’s possible to do it well with clear rules and structure. The Time Traveler’s Wife and Harry Potter are great examples of that.

      Thanks for your perspective — as a grad student in English literature (and fellow Fairfield English alum!), I appreciate your perspective! (By the way, the “Just because it happened that way, it doesn’t mean it makes good fiction!” line is the most important lesson I learned from Dr. White!)

  5. Gregory says:

    Kate – Great review! Your honesty, as usual, shines a light on what is clearly a bad cross between Susan Orlean’s amazing “The Orchid Thief” and this whole “Eat, Pray, Love” madness. Speaking of Susan Orlean, Kate, if you want a great book about flowers, “The Orchid Thief” is for you. Skip the faux-magic and one-dimensional characters, go right for the real thing.

  6. ayngelina says:

    I haven’t read the book but I look for character development as the primary focus, particularly in a travel related book, as it’s such an important part of travel.

    Based on the excerpts it seems a bit antiquated and not the kind of book I’d be interested in as a traveler in their 30s.

  7. Katie says:

    Good review! The theme of the book reminds me of all of the DaVinci Code rip-offs that were so prevalent a few years ago – average person discovers some massive secret and is suddenly traipsing off around the globe to solve some mystery. I actually liked a lot of those even if they did seem to follow a predictable pattern. This one, though, doesn’t seem too much up my alley. It just sounds like there is too much going on plot-wise and not enough character development.

    And some of the excerpts you quoted were downright awful – I think I might go crazy if I read the whole thing.

    Thanks for your honesty! Too often book reviews are quite sugar-coated so I appreciate reading one that is straightforward.

    • Every reviewer on this tour has given a positive review so far. I think they may feel like they need to because they got the book for free.

      As for the Da Vinci Code rip-offs, I remember in Angels in Demons (which, to be fair, was by the same author and preceded The Da Vinci Code), the Vatican was about to explode and yet Robert Langdon was giving scholarly lectures and flirting shamelessly with Vittoria. The same thing happened in Hothouse Flower: a character was on his deathbed and yet Armand was telling Lila stories about the power of plants!

  8. amandaelsewhere says:

    In publishing, it’s all about niches and trends. For better or for worse we are in the midst of a huge Supernatural storm. From this review, it sounds like Hothouse Flower suffers from a bit of an identity crisis – is it travel? Is it chick-lit (a term I hate, btw)? is it about plants? – while riding the coattails of the supernatural books that have come before it. PS – panther sex has been done more or less before – in the Sookie Stackhouse series currently channeled into True Blood on HBO.

    I do enjoy your humor and reviewing style and I hope the opportunity comes along for you to review more books.

    And endnote: It’s interesting to me how they had different types of blogs review – I wonder how the other “genres” of reviewers interpreted it. ..

    • Amanda, thanks for your compliments and your perspective on publishing!

      I’ve actually been chatting with a gardening blogger set to do a review later this month. He emailed me, thanking me for posting the first critical review on the tour and pointed out that the super-rare plant cutting in the book, for which Lila is offered $500, retails for about $10.

      • amandaelsewhere says:

        Haha, well that’s unfortunate…
        Most periodicals won’t pay you if you make a mistake like that. It’s a different world for novelists…anything goes I suppose.
        It’s just a shame to see how hard aspiring novelists have to work to get published, from shopping for agents to actually getting a house to publish you. For every bad book published, there are thousands more trying…

        • I’m with Amanda on this; such errata wouldn’t fly if she was writing non fiction or for a newspaper or magazine.
          I think I was probably selected for this tour because I do write about gardening a lot, (not so much about indoor plants) but what they probably didn’t know is that I review books regular and have two degrees in English, so I tended to look a little more deeply perhaps than some, though I tried to be diplomatic too. Like you, I despise the term ‘chick lit’ and apparently don’t read those types of books as a rule. I also am bamboozled beyond belief how a hack writer like Meyer can sell a bajillion books just because she writes about vampires. I flipped through one in a bookstore about two years ago and was totally horrified that anyone over the age of about 13 would read those books. The argument goes that “at least people are reading” but I don’t know if it’s better to read tripe like the Twilight books or not read at all. 🙂

  9. Kirsten says:

    If what you’ve said is accurate, which I definitely believe it is….I don’t think I’d enjoy this book at all either. The same things you point out as bothersome would very much irritate me. A lot.

  10. Amanda says:

    Sounds… interesting? Nothing about this book sounds very appealing to me. It sounds like it can’t figure out what type of novel it wants to be… and that’s slightly annoying.

    Reading your review, I kept thinking about the movie “Adaptation,” which focuses on Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Theif.” Seems like maybe that would be a better option… I at least know Orlean can write.

    Great, honest review though!

  11. I’m sorry this book didn’t work for you but I’m glad you found a FEW redeeming qualities. 🙂 Thanks for being a part of the tour – hopefully we can find another book that will be a better fit for you next time.

  12. Colleen says:

    Um, this book review was awesome and hilarious. Now if you will excuse me, I have a hot panther waiting for me upstairs….

  13. Stephanie says:

    OMG, they asked me to review this as well but I didn’t really have time. Looks like I missed out!

  14. Kate, thank you for this review. Since I put my own review up early this morning, I felt safe in tracking back and reading some of the other reviews on the tour (I usually don’t read other people’s reviews of a book I’m reviewing, lest it colour my own impressions). I was getting worried because I’d seen so many glowing reviews, and it confused me because I’m usually not totally off the mark with something.
    You actually gave this a more thorough review than I did, because I cringed so much over the ‘sex scenes’ that I didn’t want to give them any attention in my review. I enjoyed your intelligent analysis and the fact that you also brought forward those facets that you did like. I’ll be back to read your blog again, because I like your honesty.

    • Jodi, thank you so much for your kind comment!

      I was surprised at all the good reviews as well. Then again, none of them were in-depth reviews. I love literature too much to gloss over it and run with bullet points.

      I’ve since visited your blog and seen your review — I’m now a fan of you as well!

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