"HOTHOUSE FLOWER AND THE NINE PLANTS OF DESIRE" by Margot Berwin (Pantheon Books)
Lila Nova is a recently divorced 32-year-old ad woman who's too traumatized even to dip her toe into the dating scene. She has retreated to a characterless studio apartment on Manhattan's Union Square with "no memories trapped in the walls or the floorboards. No arguments or harrowing scenes of unrequited love staring at me from the bathroom mirror." Then she catches her boss in a revolting act of Peeping Tomism at a supermodel ad shoot.
But this sad-sack everywoman could just as easily have been christened India Jones by first-time novelist Margot Berwin in her shameless guilty pleasure of a romp, Hothouse Flower and the 9 Plants of Desire (Pantheon), because soon one David Exley, a gorgeously rough-hewn plant-seller dude at the local greenmarket, takes Lila down a rabbit hole into an adventure combining the kinetic, cinematic razzle dazzle of a Spielberg fantasia with the Mesoamerican metaphysical mojo of Carlos Castaneda, who provides the novel's epigraph and a good deal of its botanically hallucinatory, shape-shifting animal spirits.
True, the whole enterprise has a faintly schematic, paraliterary air about it, until the mysterious Armand, who runs a plant-festooned Laundromat on First Avenue, lures Lila into an increasingly desperate rare-plant expedition and vision quest in Mexico's Yucatan that involves black panthers, poisonous snakes, scorpions, and--putting Lila in a very sticky situation--both Mr. Exley and the Adonis-like son of a Huichol Indian shaman. The question of who's using who here opens onto a bewildering hall of mirrors as Lila finds she must draw on her untapped spiritual strengths to extricate herself from a fatally compromised, and compromising, position.
Berwin is a former ad copy writer who spent a spell in a rural village in the Yucatan and in fact has a friend who owns a Laundromat stuffed with plants, as well as a pal named Armand (the book is dedicated to him). She contends that all resemblances to persons living or dead pretty much stop there. And I have no idea what she was smoking when she cooked up this sultry, psychedelic summer souffle of a read, to which Julia Roberts has already snapped up the film rights, but...I'll have some of that!
--Ben Dickinson, From Elle Magazine, June 2009 issue