Book critics agree that Patricia Hampl's memoirs are flawless, with universal messages about the human condition. Writing with this reputation has to be a challenge.
My attitude as I started reading The Florist's Daughter, was that I'd need to be convinced that the media hype she and her publisher had accomplished was actually valid. It is. Hampl writes memoir that is transcending yet grounded in the everyday experiences of living an ordinary Midwestern and middle-class life as a daughter who found it difficult to leave her parents and her community to flap her wings elsewhere.
Hampl eventually becomes the caretaker of her handsome Czech father, who was the florist to know in St. Paul, Minnesota, and her Irish mother—sassy, distrustful, with a talent for telling a good tale and drinking herself into a stupor while telling it. These relationships inspire humor as well as pathos for Hampl; she writes about it with skill I've rarely experienced as a reader.
The book begins with Patricia Hampl "taking notes" as she sits at the bedside of her hospitalized mother, watching her slowly and reluctantly die. She expresses a full range of emotion throughout this experience, including intense anger and frustration over having wasted her life being a dutiful daughter.
Hampl also writes about the chains that bound her to Catholicism. Ever present as a reminder to keep the faith was the St. Paul Cathedral at the end of the street she lived on. The author mixes pathos with humor to describe this attachment:
"We also knew our guardian angel was perched—right there—on our shoulder (left shoulder, heart side). And when you lost anything. You recited over and over, St. Anthony, St. Anthony, Please come round. Something's been lost, And must be found. And guess what? You found it. Always. In this way everything lost was always found. Nothing was ever lost, not in St. Paul. This is why you could never fall away from the Church, why you would always be faithful: St. Anthony would keep your stuff safe and sound. And you too. With him and your guardian angel riding shotgun, you'd never experience loss. You were faithful, a daughter of the Church, a toenail on the Mystical Body."
Hampl tells it like it is, for herself, for myself, for many women I know. While describing the depressing routines of her caretaking life and how she tried to "fix" the family, she muses, "Before I imposed that midlife urgency of self-definition on them, ours was a family too earnestly unconscious, too profoundly fixed in the constellation of St. Paul's ethnic and socioeconomic indicators to imagine that 'psychology' was a word that might apply to us. Therapy was something you sought if your knee went out."
The Florist's Daughter woke me up to family patterns never discussed, my self-defeating behaviors, myths that no longer hold truth for me. It also inspired me to work at providing depth while also entertaining as I write my own memoir.
The Florist's Daughter is Patricia Hampl's fifth published memoir. Others include A Romantic Education, Virgin Time, I Could Tell You Stories, and Blue Arabesque. Hampl has also published two collections of poetry and has received a MacArthur Fellowship among many other awards. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Visit the author's website.
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