Book note: “The Florist’s Daughter” reads like poetry


Perched on a cot in a hospital room overlooking the Cathedral, Patricia Hampl sits holding her mother’s hand through her last night of life. Balancing a pad of paper on her lap and scrawling notes (the start of an obituary), the author holds the hand that has crushed out countless cigarettes in saucers on the kitchen table, punctuating stories of the soirées decorated by her husband Stan, the florist. Sitting in the dark beside her mother, the florist’s daughter opens and closes her solemn gift of a memoir.

The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl, published by Harcourt (2007). $24.00.

In this memoir, a Minnesota Book Award finalist, we come to know a family defined by heritage and by geography: the brooding Irish ancestry of Mary Catherine Ann Teresa Eleanor Marum Hampl; the hardy, make-do Czech roots of Stan Hampl; and the “Middle Kingdom” in which they lived—an ordinary neighborhood in sleepy, parochial St. Paul. In deft detail and with a dry wit that would have pleased F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hampl arranges the chapters of a daughter’s life such that a reader understands why both she and her brother yearned to escape from there, and why, despite decades of longing for change, the son has left and the daughter has stayed.

Minnesota Book Award finalists in the Daily Planet:
• Jennifer Holder on Catherine Friend’s The Perfect Nest
• Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva on Catherine Watson’s Home on the Road
• Molly Salzberger on Nancy Crocker’s Billie Standish Was Here
• Mary Ellen Shaw on Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter
• Cyrus Wolff on Patrick Jones’s Chasing Tail Lights, Will Weaver’s Defect, and Alison McGhee’s Falling Boy

As Hampl tends to the story of her sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued mother’s descent (or perhaps ascent) into dementia and her trusting, appreciative father’s demise after the breakdown of his business, we meet these characters in their heydays—dad filling the world (that is, St. Paul) with floral bounty and splendor; mom keenly observing from her corner of the ballroom who was there and what was said and how the ladies swooned for Stan. We ride along in the Ford Fairlane as Stan, in love with his hometown, instructs, “Look! Look around you!” at delights both natural and architectural. We tiptoe past the living room on Linwood Avenue, where Mary, aspirant to elegance, sips chardonnay, devouring one weighty biography after another. It is the clarity of Hampl’s portraiture of her parents that makes the revelation of their secrets so startling, and that makes a daughter’s ardent search for significance so poignant.

For a memoir filled with imagery and with little in the way of action, The Florist’s Daughter sweeps the reader right along, conveying artfully the tenderness of blooms and tendrils, the necessity of stems and the relentlessness of thorns that make up lives as they are lived in St. Paul, Minnesota. Hampl’s range of motion through the language is astounding. The Florist’s Daughter reads like poetry—a loving, aching ode to “the Trinity I held sacred—beauty, the idea of elsewhere, and the holy ghost of history.”

Anne Nicolai lives, works, plays, and blogs about arts and culture in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Visit