I had the good fortune to first encounter Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter (2007) in late November 2007 shortly after its release, when Carol Connolly hosted a reading with Hampl and poet Katrina Vandenberg (Atlas) on my husband’s birthday, at the University Club on Summit Avenue. What was especially fun about this location was that it figured in Hampl’s life as the scene of her senior prom – the story of which she told us with wry humor. Adding to the intimacy, one of the audience members traded reminiscences with Hampl about The Olympic, an ice skating rink that figures prominently in the book, as both of them remembered the music piped in and the feeling of being there in the same period of time.
The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl. Published by Harcourt (2007). $24.00
|Minnesota Book Award finalists in the Daily Planet:|
• Jennifer Holder on Catherine Friend’s The Perfect Nest
• Cyrus Wolff on Patrick Jones’s Chasing Tail Lights, Will Weaver’s Defect, and Alison McGhee’s Falling Boy
• Anne Nicolai on Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter
• Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva on Catherine Watson’s Home on the Road
• Molly Salzberger on Nancy Crocker’s Billie Standish Was Here
Hampl’s book is many things: an elegy honoring her parents, a recreation of the lost “old St. Paul” (as Hampl thinks of it now), and a meditation on the formation of self in the context of family. The book also takes us some distance into the mysterious terrain of a writer’s formation – a subject also present in Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories (2000). But while that previous book shows us the writer’s mind in action, to a degree, and meditates on the alchemy of changing memory into artistry, this book uncovers more of the engine beneath the hood – bringing us closer to the crucible itself, the pressure cooker of the family, the micro-culture of bitterness and tenderness where the stuff of creativity is forged.
In her account, stitching together recollections and unfolding understanding of the past around the more recent scene of her mother’s death bed, Hampl traces the shaping forces of her girlhood, revisiting in a more intimate way than she did in earlier books the volatile blend of ethnic (Irish and Czech), family, socio-economic, religious, and educational forces that combined to create her unique situation. At the same time, these stories – of her father’s floral artistry, of skimming over the ice at The Olympic Skating Club, of her mother’s sometimes racy kitchen-table accounts of St. Paul elite parties (decorated by their floral business) – also project a flickering, silent film of a St. Paul now completely lost to us, though aspects of it remain.
The “old St. Paul” was much smaller and more insular than the new St. Paul-Minneapolis-outskirts-sprawl we live in today; the Hampl family rarely drove beyond its well-known neighborhoods, with their distinctive ethnic, cultural, and economic cultures found block by block. Place and self intersect here through the family – neighborhoods, relatives, changing economic conditions. When Hampl’s family moves up the hill from their Czech neighborhood on Banfil to Linwood, the move in space carries with it a host of meanings, changing signifiers of class and opportunity. When Hampl assists her parents to move to a senior condo across the border of St. Paul, they are uprooted from meaningful terrain. But Hampl continues to live in the “shadow of the Cathedral,” as she describes her home, not far from the nursing home and finally the hospital where her mother spends her last days.
This book is Hampl’s most intimate, in my view, staying close to the parallel stories of her parents’ late years and Hampl’s own growing up in the family confines, with the backdrop of the setting of “old St. Paul” – a character in its own right. Hampl captures especially well the sometimes exasperating, infuriating, and heart-wrenching experience of caring for her mother in her last days as she grew increasingly volatile and confused. During the decade of caring for her aging and increasingly frail parents, Hampl learned more of the darkness that lay behind the surface of her parents’ life, which they had protected her from as she grew up. But don’t mistake this candor and the recovered detail of a lost time and place to be particularly confessional – rather, the deftness of these depictions of unfolding family pain, these puzzle-picture pieces of the darker truths falling into place decades after her childhood memories were formed, are part of Hampl’s artistry; the artist’s eye is a dispassionate one, separated from even Hampl’s own recounted feelings.
Most of Hampl’s life as an adult and as a significantly successful writer is not on display here, though we see how proud her mother was of Hampl’s success, turning Hampl’s girlhood bedroom in the house on Linwood into a shrine to her daughter’s writerly success, the “Archive” – complete with refrigerator notes and school-girl papers. We are visitors to this clear-eyed visitation of parents Hampl honors and thanks by her witty and elegiac writing. But Hampl is as reticent as she is forthcoming, gesturing us away from any hankering for more self-revelation of her inner life, but instead pointing toward the flickering and insubstantial ghosts of our own past lives, the unexamined stories of our own lost families or cities. In the end, we are left with a charge to be more present to our own lives while we are living them.