The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl

The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl is a deep exploration of two extremely influential individuals on the author’s life: her mother and her father, though much more emphasis seems to me to be on the mother. There’s an intended irony, I think, in the author’s title, the florist’s daughter. Hampl has always considered herself “his girl,” and throughout the book, Hampl shows us the benign relationship she has with her mom… at least until later in the book. The memoir could be considered a comparative analysis of Leo the Lion and Stan the Gentleman, interwoven with a final reconciliation of perception versus a broader reality that the narrator, as daughter, missed, and naturally – we aren’t often granted a more objective stance from which to view our parents. The narrator’s position is, notably, bedside next to her dying mother, and throughout the book we are returned here, in the final days of this era; though we might go away from the bed for pages and pages to explore the past, we always return to the bedside.

Throughout the text, Hampl establishes parallels between her parents and the landscape. Her mother is the downtown store; her father is the greenhouse. Her mother is urban, her father is rural. Her mother is sophisticated/from up the hill; her father is wild/from down the hill. There’s uptown and there’s the greenhouse. There’s local and there’s travel. The landscape and geography of St. Paul and its surroundings serves as the perfect vehicle for Hampl to navigate the ways in which she finds herself relating—or not relating—to her parents. As Hampl explores the world of her childhood and her parents’ upbringing, the florist’s daughter gradually realizes that she is not just the florist’s daughter. With distance and experience, the depth of her mother within her surfaces along with an understanding of Leo the Lion. This revelation to the reader and the narrator, too, comes late in the memoir, when Hampl writes this single sentence paragraph: “And I’d thought I was his girl” (page 201).

There’s much to praise in Hampl’s rendering of her parents. Using key phrases and descriptions of her parents, she is able to establish and carry their personae throughout the memoir, reminding the reader who these people are. I am impressed by Hampl’s exhaustive descriptions and explanations of her parents. A perfect example is on page 52, when describing her father’s relationship to St. Paul:

“But the attention my father demanded was a world away from the note-taking watchfulness of my mother in the corners of charity balls. She was tracking. He was filled with wonder. St. Paul provided all the beauty a person needed—St. Paul and an occasional trip into the glory of the Minnesota lake country. Leo the Lion plotted guided trips to Ireland that he argued were a waste of time and money. The Thoreau of St. Paul, he said Europe could wait, he hadn’t seen all of Minnesota yet.”

This beautifully rendered sentence out the mouth of a lesser writer might have read: “My father loved St. Paul and didn’t care to go anywhere else, even though my mother tried to arrange trips to Europe.”

Lately I have been picking up on a writer’s use of key repetitions and their effectiveness. Even in this paragraph, I can grab “note-taking,” “charity balls,” and “Leo the Lion,” three prominent characteristics that Hampl has affiliated with her mother. This seems extremely useful to me in building a character across many pages of a book. They are unique details about a person that help us to understand who she is, and repeating them reminds us of these qualities.

Hampl is also a master of sequence and timing. The reader discovers truths about the narrator as they happen—we experience her naïveté in the florist’s shop with the navy man and the epiphany of the “almost rape” late in the book, not to mention her awakening to the relationship she has with her mother. It seems that as the scenes unfold, the narrator gradually comes to a clearer understanding of her mother, as if by sitting bedside in the hospital with her, she has turned on a slow defrost against a severely frozen windshield. By the end of the book, the windshield has been made clear so as to navigate the way from here forward.

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