I just read Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter, and I’m in awe of her prose and her ability to evoke the world of St. Paul in the 1950s and 60s and make an enthralling story out of the lives of “ordinary” people. This book was such an extraordinary pleasure to read, I looked forward to each time I got to open its covers and re-enter its world.
In this most recent of a series of memoirs, Patricia Hampl focuses on her parents, middle class people (having risen slightly from their origins) living in the middle of the country in the middle of the 20th century, who believed the middle was the best place to be. St. Paul was their world–“Why go to Minneapolis?” her father would say. As her mother lies dying, Hampl looks back over her parents’ lives and her own. “Look, look!” her very visual, man-of-few-words florist father often exhorted, while her mother, a college library file clerk, loved reading, story telling, and the written word more than anything. Quite the set of parents for a writer!
A truly beautiful portrait of her father emerges over the course of the book. Stan Hampl, the son of Czech immigrants, devoted his entire working life to the city’s premier florist business, which for generations had served St. Paul society. He was invited to their homes, their charity balls, their parties, all of which he decorated with his floral artistry. While he didn’t envy them or want what they had, he was glad they were up there on Summit Avenue, living their elegant lives in their beautiful houses and gardens. Stan Hampl was devoted to beauty and in love with the greenhouse where he made his arrangements, his contribution to the beauty of his world. “This surface loveliness was the outward and visible sign, as the nuns taught us about the sacraments, of an inward and spiritual grace, the communion of civic good he believed in…”
Patricia Hampl’s mother comes across as a more complicated character, viewing the world with an observer’s detachment, irony, and a constant sense of what Hampl calls Irish grudge. Her favorite reading was Irish history and biography, which helped nourish her belief in “the interests”–English and Protestant, of course–which were “murky forces, unnamed, mighty in power, extensive in their reach” into the lives of people like Mary Hampl herself. She considered her husband an innocent, believing as he did in the essential goodness of people. Quite late, when Patricia Hampl is an established writer, she finds out that her mother always wanted to be a writer–and she is her mother’s daughter indeed, as well as being the florist’s daughter.
I read this book from a library copy but have already ordered a copy of my own. I know I will want to re-read it and study it to see how Patricia Hampl does it. Women’s memoirs are a favorite genre of mine, and this book sets the standard for how memoir is done. Further, it strengthens my belief that the everyday lives of supposedly ordinary people are worthy of attention and literary consideration. Or, as Virginia Wolf put it, the life of a shop girl might be more important than one more biography of a hero.