First Page Appraisal: Hothouse Flower and the 9 Plants of Desire by Margot Berwin

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We don’t judge books by their covers (heavens, no!), but we do think it’s sometimes OK, in the interest of efficiency, to judge them by their first pages. Today we’re reading the first page of Hothouse Flower and the 9 Plants of Desire, the hot pink tome you may recall from our Roy G. Biv-themed summer reading list. The book’s first two pages (bonus!) are excerpted after the jump; read on to find out if we recommend sticking around beyond uno y dos.

BIRD OF PARADISE (Strelitzia Reginae) Native of South Africa, member of the banana family, prized for its tall, highly colored structures. This plant is not for the easily disappointed, impatient or bossy, as it can take seven years to produce a single bloom. Perfect for the person who gives and gives without getting anything in return. You know who you are. I inadvertently became interested in tropical plants because that’s what the man at the Union Square Green Market sold me. I used to believe that sentence but now I know better. Now I know that it was meant to be. Here’s how it happened. I had just moved to 14th street and Union Square into a small, newly renovated studio with absolutely no character. It was a square-shaped box with parquet floors, no moulding, no details, white paint, and low ceilings. It was exactly the kind of apartment I wanted. Its newness meant that there were no memories trapped in the walls or the floorboards. No arguments or harrowing scenes of unrequited love staring at me from the bathroom mirror. It was brand new. Just like I wanted my life to be. I thought a bit of foliage might spruce the place up, no pun intended, and add some much needed color, so I walked across the street to the Union Square green market to make my purchase. The man at the plant stand was a throwback. He had streaky blonde hair and a dirt colored tan that came from being outside all the time. In his worn-out flannel shirt and beat up Timberlands, worn for work, not fashion, he stood out in stark contrast to the manicured metro-sexuals perusing the market, wicker baskets in one hand, Gucci sunglasses in the other. This man was different. He was a rugged, country-sexual. He asked me to describe my apartment not in terms of the square footage or the make of the stove and the fridge, but by the amount of light, temperature, and humidity. I told him that I had floor to ceiling windows, which was mostly true, although they were more ceiling-to-heating unit than ceiling-to-floor. I told him that I had an unobstructed south-facing view, hard to find in New York City, and that as long as the sun was shining it was hot and sunny all day long, even in the winter. I hadn’t lived in my apartment through a winter so I’m not sure why I said that, but I guess it sounded good to me and also to him since he bent down amongst his plants, head covered with purple flowers, butt in the air, and emerged with a big smile and a two-foot high bunch of leaves. I was disappointed. “What is it?” “A bird of paradise,” he said holding it up toward the sky and twirling the pot around with his fingertips. “A tropical plant?” I asked zippering my coat against the late March wind and picturing its imminent death. “Hawaiian to be exact. Strelitzia reginae. A member of the banana family. She needs lots of sunlight, not too direct, and [end of page]

Our reaction: Lot of stimuli here. At first, I was like, “um, descriptions of flora?,” but as soon as I got to the part that said, “Perfect for the person who gives and gives without getting anything in return. You know who you are,” I eased up and decided to trust Berwin with whatever it is she’s trying to do. Moving on to the actual first sentence, and its immediate negation in the second sentence, I was more or less sold then and there. Have you read Everything is Illuminated, by Jonthan Safran Foer? We think Berwin’s first two sentences recall that novel’s start: “It was March 18, 1791, when Trachim B’s double-axle wagon either did or did not pin him against the bottom of the Brod River.” An auspicious beginning!

The verdict: I desperately want to keep reading! Berwin’s subject matter (exotic plants) is obscure, but she leads us into it in a tone that promises a hugely interesting story. Beyond that, the main character’s backstory sounds really intriguing too: her spare apartment was “exactly the kind of apartment I wanted. Its newness meant that there were no memories trapped in the walls or the floorboards. No arguments or harrowing scenes of unrequited love staring at me from the bathroom mirror.” The character’s surreal visit to the plant stand is probably the first of many eccentricities to come in this novel.