Monday, February 28, 2011

The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl

I enjoy memoirs. It’s fun for me to read about people with more interesting lives than mine. However, I think writing a memoir poses a challenge, and also involves some risk. How many aspiring writers out there have jotted down ordinary journal entries and sent them in for publication, hoping for a big break? Where do you draw the line between personal disclosure and good storytelling? FYI: pouring your soul into the page doesn’t necessarily make for good writing.

That’s what someone should have told Patricia Hampl before she wrote The Florist’s Daughter.

The book cover, as well as Hampl’s prose, is certainly pretty. Unfortunately the old adage about looks being skin deep applies here. The contents behind the cover are pretty words, pretty prose, little substance and a lack of direction. A few not-so-pretty words that come to mind are monotonous, unexciting, repetitive and tedious.

The story begins and ends in the hospital room of Hampl’s dying mother, which in itself is an effective bookend for the narration. These scenes in the hospital room are relatively well done, as they explore the nature of grief and how the death of a parent is essentially the end of an era of one’s life. Between these bookends is one long flashback to Hampl’s childhood, and this is where she loses her sense of narration and lets the book meander with no purpose in sight.

Hampl grew up in St. Paul, where her father owned a flower shop, and where she claims to have led a sheltered life in which she and her brother were “spoiled with love.” In school I was always told to “show, don’t tell” when it came to writing. With this book, you can expect a heaping helping of telling and a small side dish of showing.

For example, the “spoiled with love” quote is a frail statement that hangs in the air; for never, at any point, does she provide examples to support this claim. In fact, that’s how she spends the majority of the book; claiming, time and again, that her father wished to preserve his little girl’s innocence, while hardly providing examples of such an upbringing; mentioning, but never delving into, her rebellious, pot-smoking teenage years. By telling and not showing, Hampl merely skims the surface and neglects to add substance to her general claims, thereby preventing the book from being interesting.

It seems as though Hampl does not know how to fill in the middle portion of the book, so she simply repeats what she has said before, multiple times, just in case her readers didn’t get the point. I found myself thinking, “Yes, we know your father wanted you to be innocent. You’ve said that already. Next?” Hampl repeats time and again that she feels a sense of duty in her role as a daughter, but hardly, if ever, delves into why or how she fulfilled that duty, or why she chose to remain living in St. Paul after aspiring to move away.

All the while Hampl portrays her parents as two-dimensional stock characters: her father as the idealist and her mother as the pragmatist. At times it seems as if her goal is to simply paint a beautiful portrait of a cutesy child’s fantasy; an idealized childhood filled with pretty flowers and populated by quirky stock characters that never develop into real people.

The novel as a whole is superficially pleasing if you enjoy poetry, particularly poetry that is art for art’s sake. No doubt Hampl has a way with words, and if she could only make the substance match the style, she’d have it made.

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