A writer tests limits of understanding

Review Memoir

November 04, 2007|By Beth Kephart

The Florist's Daughter

By Patricia Hampl

Harcourt / 227 pages / $24

In the middle - "middle-class, Midwestern, midcentury - middle everything" - that was Patricia Hampl's lot in life. The second of two children born to a Czech florist and his Irish wife and raised in St. Paul, Minn., Hampl grew up the way so many of us did - looking for escape, circling right back round to home. She went fishing with her father. She whisked across slicked ice rinks. She listened to her mother's stories. She wanted out. She didn't go: "A son is a son until he takes a wife. A daughter is a daughter all her life." That was her mother's mantra. That was Hampl's fate.

It is also the subject of her most exquisite new memoir, The Florist's Daughter, which is neither a settling of accounts nor a deification. Hampl isn't searching for heroes in The Florist's Daughter. She's listening for echoes, affixing shadows, taking a tour of her memory again, the photos, again, the stories she'd been told, again, and also the lies that she was fed and that she harbored. Hampl isn't on a hunt for pity. She's testing the limits of understanding.

The middle was safe, the middle was sweet - that's what her mother told her. "Reach for the stars, sweetie - and stay, stay right here."

And Hampl did. Through her college years. Through her years as a poet, an essayist, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. Through small rebellions. Through her marriage. And when her parents each grew ill and frail in their own ways, their caretaking became Hampl's responsibility - errands and doctors' offices and worry - while her brother lived his own life, miles away.

Was she wasting her life? Was she living her life? How does one reconcile the sacrifices of daughterhood, or is the word privilege? "We were wrong about work - it isn't the best thing, no matter how much you love it," Hampl writes about her family's ethos. "Wasting time is better."

Oh, how I cried when I read those two sentences - I, who have been spending so much time in doctors' offices and pharmacy lines, in hospitals, sitting beside my mother in her final days, talking my father through loss, Bell's palsy, shingles. We don't understand what it is to grow old until we are asked to take that journey with our parents. The Florist's Daughter creates context. It yields perspective. It makes sitting, waiting, aching and watching honorable, restores our sense of purpose.

It also yields some of the most glorious sentences and narrative framing you will find anywhere. Hampl's childhood may have been ordinary by the standards of James Frey or Lauren Slater, but her talents as a writer render it far more meaningful, and resonant.

Her descriptions of ice skating at the rink across the street from her childhood home are both poetic and thrilling, for example: "The ice, so new, made a particular sound when you first cut it, and this sound - not a squeak, not a hiss, but a cello note like heavy silk slowly, intentionally ripped - grasped the heart and made you insanely happy to be alive."

Her gentle teasing out of a mother's imperiousness and a father's lasting innocence are unblinkingly specific, and searing: "The rare innocence of my father never hardens into experience, into knowing what's what. He never achieves irony, the consolation prize for losing innocence and gaining experience."

And Hampl's willingness to implicate herself as perhaps overly judgmental and cold, thin-lipped and tense, culminate in an unforgettable sequence during which she agrees to accompany her mother to Ireland. Hampl is grudging, certain she will hate every moment, is making the sacrifices of the dutiful. Overseas, in her mother's glory land, Hampl is chastened to discover that she has on her arm a most delightful, happy companion - someone she never knew at home. No one is spared Hampl's precise eye in this memoir, least of all Hampl herself.

The Florist's Daughter begins with the dying of Hampl's mother, and it ends right around there, too, and one might almost believe that Hampl wrote the entire first draft on a yellow legal pad sitting in the hospital, holding her mother's hand. The prose moves back and forth through time as the mind of the weary will. The chapters settle on scenes revived, studied, shaken. In the end, Hampl is where Hampl wants to be - with her mother, despite everything, despite it all. In the end, there is one of the most beautiful sentences I've encountered in a memoir, but I'm leaving you to find it.

What, precisely, makes for a writer, or a poet? All throughout The Florist's Daughter, Hampl gives us clues. Writing requires "the heavy lifting of the real freight of your soul," she tells us. Writing requires wonder and acuity. Writing requires a talent for seeing. The imagination is the last thing to go.

"You either believe in ghosts or you don't," Hampl writes. "The stray fragments of old conversations, the voices of the dead - you're a person they talk to, mumbling in your head, or they don't, the little people who invade the mind-heart or whatever this engine of self is."

Beth Kephart's books include five memoirs and the recently released young-adult novel "Undercover." She wrote a version of this review for the Chicago Tribune.

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