Travel/Adventure Book Review: Hothouse Flower
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.