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Oct/Nov 2008 Reviews & Interviews

A Sterling Memoirist at Work

The Florist's Daughter
by Patricia Hampl
Harcourt. 2007. 240 pp.
ISBN 9780151012572.

Review by Niranjana Iyer


Buy now from Amazon! We live in the age of the confession: anyone who's had a reasonably unhappy childhood and isn't flat-lining seems to be penning a biography. All but the chronically determined, however, will be intimidated into sticking with the day job after reading The Florist's Daughter. Patricia Hampl doesn't just raise the bar; she is the Yelena Isinbayeva of memoirists, creating page after page of flawless prose revealing how universal truths can unfurl from the particular.

We first encounter the author in a hospital. Her mother Mary is terminally ill, and the writer daughter is sitting by the bed with a yellow legal pad in her hand. "I'm a notetaker from long habit," writes Hampl. This tone of wry self-awareness never lets up, not even in the midst of tragedy and drama. Hampl's insistence on cutting through sentiment and nostalgia to arrive at a cool objective truth renders this book meditation rather than biography.

When Mary Marum, outspoken, sarcastic and opinionated, wed Stan Hampl, a gentle, mild-mannered florist in St. Paul, Minnesota, it was more than a marriage of opposites; it was a mingling of cultures—stern Irish Catholicism with Czech Bohemian-ness. Patricia Hampl analyzes not just her parents' relationship but her own life choices in the context of the contradictions of this union, and in the process, arrives at insights about the nature of filial duty that will make most readers startle with recognition. When dealing with the gradual debilitation and death of a parent, The Florist's Daughter can be an unbearably personal read. Hampl holds our worst fears to an implacable spotlight.

But the author's bigger achievement is perhaps her ability to combine such intimate parsing of familial relationships with a flair for capturing the big picture, of summing up a whole generation or region. About the Midwest: "Of all the American regions, the Midwest remains the most imaginary, ahistorical but fiercely emblematic. It's Nowheresville. But it's also the Heartland. That weight again: the innocent middle. Though it isn't innocent. It's where the American imagination has decided to archive innocence."

I never felt the need to travel to the Midwest until I read this book. Hampl makes St. Paul, where she has lived all her life, simultaneously transparent and mysterious. This author's particular skill lies in transmuting the ordinary into something layered and profound without ever losing sight of its essential ordinariness. What a pleasure to see this intellect at work, what a thrill to read prose where every word seems to fall into its predestined place. Gift this book to all aspiring memoirists of your acquaintance.

 

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