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and the Nine Plants of Desire

Written by Margot BerwinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Margot Berwin


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: June 16, 2009
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-37829-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf

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On Sale: June 16, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-7393-8394-0
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Lila Nova is a thirty-two year-old advertising copyrighter who lives alone in a plain, white box of an apartment. Recovering from a heartbreaking divorce, Lila’s mantra is simple: no pets, no plants, no people, no problems. But when Lila meets David Exley, a ruggedly handsome plant-seller, her lonely life blossoms into something far more colorful.
From the cold, harsh streets of Manhattan to the verdant jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula, Hothouse Flower is the story of a woman who must travel beyond the boundaries of sense and comfort to find what she truly wants.


Bird-of-Paradise (Strelitzia reginae) Native of South Africa, member of the banana family,  prized for its tall, highly colored structures.  This plant is not for the easily disappointed, impatient, or bossy,  as it can take seven years to produce a single bloom.  Perfect for the person who gives and gives  without getting anything in return. You know who you are. I inadvertently became interested in tropical plants because that’s what the man at the Union Square Green Market sold me. I used to believe that sentence, but now I know better. Now I know that it was meant to be. Here’s how it happened. I had just moved to Fourteenth Street and Union Square, into a small, newly renovated studio with absolutely no character. It was a square-shaped box with parquet floors, no molding, no details, white paint, and low ceilings. It was exactly the kind of apartment I wanted. Its newness meant that there were no memories trapped in the walls or the floorboards. No arguments or harrowing scenes of unrequited love staring at me from the bathroom mirror. It was brand-new. Just like I wanted my life to be. I thought a bit of foliage might spruce the place up, no pun intended, and add some much-needed color, so I walked across the street to the Union Square Green Market to make my purchase. The man at the plant stand was a throwback. He had streaky blond hair and a dirt-colored tan that came from being outside all the time. In his worn-out flannel shirt and beat-up Timberlands—worn for work, not fashion—he stood out in stark contrast to the manicured metro-sexuals perusing the market, wicker baskets in one hand, Gucci sunglasses in the other. This man was different. He was a rugged country-sexual. He asked me to describe my apartment not in terms of the square footage or the make of the stove and the fridge, but by the amount of light, temperature, and humidity. I told him that I had floor-to-ceiling windows, which was mostly true, although they were more ceiling-to-heating-unit than ceiling-to-floor. I told him that I had an unobstructed south-facing view, hard to find in New York City, and that as long as the sun was shining it was hot and sunny all day long, even in the winter. I hadn’t lived in my apartment through a winter, so I’m not sure why I said that, but I guess it sounded good to me, and also to him, since he bent down amongst his plants, head covered with purple flowers, butt in the air, and emerged with a big smile and a two-foot-high bunch of leaves. I was disappointed. “What is it?” “A bird-of-paradise,” he said, holding it up toward the sky and twirling the pot around with his fingertips. “A tropical plant?” I asked, zipping my coat against the late-March wind and picturing its imminent death. “Hawaiian, to be exact. Strelitzia reginae. A member of the banana family. She needs lots of sunlight, not too direct, and let the soil dry out between waterings. She’s tough to raise, and she won’t flower for five or six or maybe seven years, depending on the weather. And the love,” he added with a wink. I unzipped my jacket. Six or seven years? My marriage didn’t last that long. Do you have anything that flowers sooner, like in a week or two?” “This is the plant for you,” he said. “She’s a beauty.” “How much?” “Thirty dollars, and I’ll throw in a brochure on rare tropicals so you know how to care for her.” “Three zero I could go to the deli on the corner and get a dozen roses for ten dollars that have great big sweet-smelling flowers on them right now.” “You could, but they’d be dead in a week. You’d have to buy new ones every Saturday. If you do the math, I’m a bargain. And besides, this bird is tropical. Think balmy ocean breezes, swaying palm trees, cabana boys, and piña coladas on white sand beaches near warm light-blue water.” I don’t know whether it was the piña coladas, the cabana boys, or the sky blue of his eyes, but as a person who worked in advertising, I had to respect a good sales pitch. I paid him, and he handed me the plant, the brochure on rare tropicals, and his card, which said “David Exley, Plant Man.” “Sounds like a superhero,” I said. “Well, I do have a little something special with the flora and fauna, if you know what I mean.” I didn’t, but I nodded anyway. “Come back if her leaves start turning yellow around the edges. I’m here every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday from six in the morning till ten at night.” “They better not,” I said over my shoulder. “For thirty dollars they better stay bright freakin’ green.” I walked through the market with my bird-of-paradise held out in front of me like an offering. It felt good to be carrying around a piece of the earth. I thought it made me look like one of those women who cooked satisfying meals on a nightly basis for their Steiner School children while wearing Birkenstocks and reading from the Cabala, instead of the single, childless, plantless, divorced thirty-two-year-old woman that I was. Back in my apartment, I set the bird-of-paradise down on the window ledge. The base of the pot was too wide, and it teetered. I caught my thirty-dollar tropical right before it crashed to the floor. Not five minutes with me and its life was already in danger. No surprises there. The bird-of-paradise was the first living thing I shared space with since my divorce. No pets, no plants, no people, no problems had been my motto for the past nine months. I met my ex-husband at work. He was cute and smart and successful and he was a huge mistake. He was a man who drank like a fish and wanted lots of babies. I was a woman who didn’t want lots of babies and drank like a human being. I know that most marriages are complex and multilayered, but ours was not. Our four-year marriage went something like this: Year one—“I love you, Lila.” Year two—“I love you, Lila.” Year three—“I love you, Lila.” Year four—“I’m leaving you, Lila, for the producer at the advertising agency.” The producer at the advertising agency, aka the woman who brought him coffee and made his plane reservations. What a cliché. At the time I wondered how something that sounded so much like a made-for-TV movie could hurt so bad. But in truth it wasn’t the drinking or the producer. The problem with our marriage was genetic. My husband came from a big Irish Catholic family where everyone got married and had kids unless they were gay or terminally ill. I came from a family where no one ever got married unless they had kids first, and usually by accident. My parents, whom I love madly, divorced when I was young. Post divorce, they both dated furiously, like teenagers, without ever remarrying. My sister and brother, both older, had children but no spouses. A lot of people get married to keep with tradition. I was a rebel. I married to break with it. The strange thing was, against all odds, I loved being married. I adored the little rituals. The cute nicknames. “Honeybear” for him. “Wild Rose” for me. I loved shopping at Whole Foods, cooking beef stews and chicken soups in huge pots with lots of vegetables. I loved washing the dishes while listening to Curtis Mayfield. I liked washing, drying, and folding the clothes. For Christ’s sake, I even loved the vacuuming. I think it’s fair to say that during the years of my marriage I became the single most boring person in the entire world, and I totally loved it. Turned out, my ex, who by all external appearances and family history was the solid, marrying kind, absolutely hated it. He was a space freak. He grew up in a tiny house with lots of siblings, and he couldn’t stand the proximity to another person. He kept dragging me around to buy bigger beds and move into larger spaces. In the end, we were sleeping on a mattress so wide we could lie spread-eagle and our fingertips ?wouldn’t touch, and we were living in a loft the size of an airplane hangar. Just to make sure I wasn’t crazy, I took a survey on the bed. My friend Oliver, who was a well-known interior designer, said it was the largest piece of furniture he’d ever seen in a Manhattan apartment. My friend Lisa said it made her feel tiny, like a baby who’d crawled into her parents’ bed. My mother offered to have special sheets made for it. And my co-worker and good friend Kodiak Starr, who was a surfer, said that with its blue-green comforter it reminded him of the ocean. It was official. My bed was as big as the Atlantic. I was sleeping in New York, and my husband was all the way on the other side of the mattress, in London. My big Honeybear, my rock, turned out to be a piece of pumice stone. Flaky and crumbly under pressure, and unable to talk about or even know what he was feeling. In our giant apartment with the giant bed, he moved farther and farther away, until one day he simply never came home at all. No kidding. Just like that. Turned out my real rock was my co-worker Kodiak Starr. Kody was a bit of a philosopher/crunchy surfer for someone with such a glamorous name, and he was more beautiful than most of the women I knew. He used annoying words like “cool” and “dude,” and he was into things like transcendental meditation and lucid dreaming. He would probably be considered New Age if he hadn’t been born in 1984, eight years after me. Because we shared an office, Kody did most of the day-to-day heavy lifting when it came to hearing about my ex. We were supposed to be working on a new commercial for Puma sneakers, but mostly we worked on the much more pressing questions of my marriage. When I asked him why my husband left without ever trying to work it out, he answered in lilting, rolling, easy-to-digest surfing metaphors. He brushed his silky blond hair behind his ears, put his flip-flop-clad feet up on the desk, and wrapped his hands around the back of his neck. “Dude,” he said, “only world-class long-board surfers have the discipline to ride all kinds of waves, big or small, in all kinds of conditions. Your husband was a short-board amateur.” “But why me?” I asked for the hundredth time. “Why do I have to go through this?” “Because wiping out is like breathing,” he said. “Everybody does it.” After the death of my marriage, I was hell-bent on keeping the bird-of-paradise alive. I would take it slowly. Plants first. And if everything went well, then I’d move on to people. In the mornings, before work, I stroked its stems with my fingertips, because they were slightly fuzzy and felt nice to the touch, and occasionally I washed its big ?banana-?plant leaves with a damp sponge when they got too dusty from city living. I treated that bird like a houseguest, except I gave it water instead of wine and I tried not to blow cigarette smoke in its direction. I kept the blinds open all day, even when it was so sunny I couldn’t read my computer screen. I catered to what I imagined to be its every whim, and, much to my surprise, it flourished. New shoots grew out of its stems. I coaxed them along with hand-wrung drops of water and sweet talk. They unfurled into giant shiny pale-green translucent leaves with delicate visible veins. I wanted to go back to the green market to thank David Exley and brag about my progress (aka see him again and flirt mercilessly), but I was afraid: when it came to men, I was skittish and out of practice. So instead I called Kody. He answered his phone at the beach and screamed over the surf. “You gotta get back out there, Lila. You gotta get out there and catch some waves. Don’t come back till you have cramps in your calves from squatting in the curl. Free as a bird, girl. Free as a bird.” I hung up the phone and headed to the green market, squatting in the curl. “My bird is growing beautifully,” I said. David Exley, Plant Man, pointed his thumb behind him. “There’s a lot more where that came from.” “I’m not shopping, I’m just browsing.” “Fine by me, browse away. But if you have a minute I can take you into my tent and show you how to make that bird grow wings.” “I have some time,” I said. “Show me how to make her fly.” He dropped his voice and moved in closer. “Before I give away the special secrets of my tropical trade, I need to know who I’m talking to.” “I’m Lila.” “Lila, that’s nice. Lila what?” “Nova.” “A middle name, Lila Nova?” “Grace.” “Lila Grace Nova. The new Lila Grace.” He took my elbow and led me into the indoor part of his plant stand. It was a humid, dripping green tent the size of a small city apartment, and packed with plants. It was at least fifteen degrees warmer than the air outside, and it smelled like damp earth and rain and things that are green. On one wooden picnic table he had five tall birds-of-paradise. Their leaves were firm and pointing toward the sky. “Give me your hand, Lila Grace Nova.” He took my hand and ran my fingertips over a large leaf. “Feel that?” “It’s wet.”“Not wet. Misty. Can you feel the difference?” “How do you keep them like this? Misty, I mean. Without them turning into just plain wet?” He let go of my hand. It was covered with dirt from his gardening glove, as if he were still holding it. “Buy yourself a couple of ?extra-?large humidifiers. Don’t put ’em too close to the bird—you don’t want to soak the leaves—but not too far away, either—you don’t want them to dry out. Just close enough to keep them coated with a fine, delicate mist. She’ll love it. She’ll grow you right out of your apartment. Take my word for it, you’ll have to move to a new place just to keep up with that bird.” “I hate moving.”“That’s because you’re rooted. The sign of a true plant person.”I liked the sound of that. A true plant person. It sounded so much more alive, and warmer, and more female than a true advertising person.I looked at Exley. His eyes were the color of a faded blue workshirt, with wrinkles spread out in a fan design around the outer corners, probably from squinting into the sun all day. He made me feel like I wasn’t in Manhattan, and I liked the feeling. This man is a true professional, I thought. A real flower- selling flirt.“What kind of work do you do?” he asked.“I’m in advertising.”“Glamorous business, huh?”I gave it all I had. If he was going to play rugged country boy, I was going to play sexy city woman.“Yes,” I said, brushing my wavy blond hair off my shoulders with both hands and shaking my head from side to side, “it’s a very glamorous business.”
Margot Berwin

About Margot Berwin

Margot Berwin - Hothouse Flower

Photo © Michael Lionstar

Margot Berwin is the author of the best-selling novel Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire. Her work has been translated into nineteen languages. She earned her MFA from the New School in 2005 and lives in New York City.



“The great escapist novel of the summer…. [A] shameless guilty pleasure of a romp…. An adventure combining the kinetic, cinematic razzle­dazzle of a Spielberg fantasia with the Mesoamerican metaphysical mojo of Carlos Castaneda…. [A] sultry, psychedelic summer soufflé of a read.” —Elle

“Dive into Berwin's lush debut novel about Lila, a weary New Yorker who's drawn into a world of quixotic strangers and exotic botanicals.”Entertainment Weekly

“Margot Berwin makes a clever imaginative leap in her first novel, Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, creating her own horticultural myth and then fashioning a lively… novel around it.” —The Boston Globe

A psychedelic adventure.”The Wall Street Journal

“Sensual, voluptuous.Berwin vividly evokes the mosquito-loud, velvety blackness of a rainforest night.” —National Geographic Traveler
“Take two parts Carlos Castañeda, one part Sunset garden book, and top with a splash of Indiana Jones…. Shameless, sweet, and deceptively potent.” —Santa Fe New Mexican

“Seductive interludes and exotic adventures define Margot Berwin's Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire…. Berwin crafts an easy summer read that is a guide on plant mythology, spirit animals, curanderos (healers) and the mystery that can guide us to spiritual discovery, if only we open up to it.” —Austin American-Statesman

“[A] grown-up fairy tale full of mysticism, shamans, and animal spirits. Light and breezy, it’s also full of romance and some interesting observations from Armand about the meaning of life.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“With its steamy title, you know [Hothouse] is made for summer reading—and Berwin does not disappoint.” New York Post

“Fanciful and educational at the same time, Hothouse Flower provides a muggy escape to the jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula.... You'll enjoy this colorful escape of a novel.” Charleston City Paper

“Berwin’s descriptions are as luxurious as the tropical plants themselves…. Scintillating…. Berwin combines her gardening knowledge with adept storytelling to weave together a tale of romance, adventure and intrigue that will enchant readers, green-thumbed or not.” —BookPage

“One original, entertaining novel!...[Berwin] is an intoxicating and seductive storyteller.... Packed with wit, humor, love, romance, and adventure worthy of Indiana Jones himself, this is a must read.” —Sacramento Book Review

“Great for anyone who loves outdoor adventure as much as lying on a sun lounger.” —Glamour (London)

“A young female ad exec gets down and dirty—in the garden, of course—in Margot Berwin’s sprightly debut novel. Journeying to the Yucatán in search of a collection of legendary botanical specimens, she encounters shamans and black-marketeers, and naturally, she blossoms in the end.” —Hemispheres

“Margot Berwin is equal parts fabulist, botanist, and comedian. I learned a lot from this delightful novel, and now I know just what to do the next time I confront a rattlesnake, a scorpion, or a strange but wise plant man in a Laundromat.” —Chris Bohjalian, author of Midwives, The Double Bind, and Skeletons at the Feast

“Nearly impossible to put down. This refreshing novel has an almost comic book sense of high adventure. Strange and improbable, Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire is unswervingly fun to read.” —Catherine Ryan Hyde, author of Pay it Forward
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's discussion of Hothouse Flower, Margot Berwin's sultry debut novel.

About the Guide

Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, explores plant magic, spiritual discovery, and romantic fever in the jungles of Mexico—an adventure that finds its roots at a green market in lower Manhattan and in one very special Laundromat.

Shortly after her divorce, advertising executive Lila Nova purchases her first plant, a bird-of-paradise. The seller is David Exley, a rugged “country-sexual” who introduces her to the legend of the nine plants of desire. After she meets Armand, who claims to own the nine plants, she finds herself on an adventure beyond her imagination. In the Yucatán, alone, hefting only a backpack, a survival guide and a bottle of expensive shampoo, Lila learns more than she ever wanted to know about the rain forest—and about herself.

About the Author

Margot Berwin earned her MFA from the New School in 2005. Her stories have appeared on Nerve.com, in the New York Press, and in the anthology The Future of Misbehavior. Hothouse Flower is her first novel and it has been published throughout the world in ten languages. Berwin lives in New York City.

Discussion Guides

1. Hothouse Flower has been described as Eat, Pray, Love meets The Orchid Thief. Have you read either of those titles and do you agree with the comparison? What other works did the book remind you of?

2. What do the nine plants of desire stand for? What do you think about Berwin’s choices for the plants and their properties? What plants would you choose for your legend and what would they represent for you?

3. What do you make of the tenth plant, the passion plant with no name? What is it symbolic of and what role does it play in the book? Why do you think passion isn’t one of the nine original desires?

4. Before each chapter, Berwin includes a short introduction—an explanation of a plant, an idea or an occupation. Did you enjoy these chapter headings? Did they add to your experience of the chapter to come or of the book as a whole? Which were your favorites?

5. Lila, like all of us, is a combination of many qualities—both cautious and adventurous, she shows herself to be greedy but also regretful about the damage she causes. What did you make of Lila as a character? Armand says that she is one of the few people he’s met who is capable of change. Did she change throughout the book? Is that the point of her adventure, or does she become more like the person she always was?

6. How did the symbolism of the black panther develop throughout the book? What role did it play in the commercial Lila creates, in her dream before she leaves for Mexico, and in her realization that the panther is her spirit animal?

7. Armand seems very sure of himself and open to the world at the same time. He is giving and spirited; he is serious about listening to people, but also pokes fun at their problems. What did you make of him as a character? Do you think he invents stories to serve his purposes? How much the part of a puppeteer does he play, desiring for himself the passion plant with no name to give to Sonali? What does his role in the story say about how much we can trust each other’s motives?

8. At the end, Lila finds the snake is inexorably linked to Exley. Did his heart’s desire to be rid of the creature surprise you? What is the difference between Lila’s panther nature and Exley’s snake core?

9. Berwin creates memorable supporting characters, most notably Kody and Sonali. How do they both act as foils to Lila and Armand? What kind of philosophy do they have about the world? Sonali, Armand says, is a flower person, while he and Lila are root people. What is the difference, and how do you see it in the other characters and in your own personality?

10. So much of the book is about relationships—Lila and Kody’s friendship, Lila’s attraction to Exley, Sonali and Armand’s marriage, Lila and Diego’s affair. What role do mating rituals play in the book? How does plant life (such as the sinsemilla and the gloxinia) play a part in mating, and what does Lila learn about herself and her relationships—her own marriage, her attractions?

11. What did you make of the character of Diego? Does he represent a native wisdom lost to those who leave the jungles and stray from knowledge of the earth? Where do you see Lila’s relationship with Diego going?

12. Armand is a fountain of philosophical advice, as is Diego: “you miss half your life always looking down”; “The tropics can happen anywhere . . . they’re a state of mind.” What did you take to be the philosophical tone of the book? How did it help propel the story along, and did Lila’s own philosophies shift over the course of her adventures?

13. The movie rights to Hothouse Flower were bought by Julia Roberts. The book combines adventure, mystery, and romance in a dangerous, lush, and breathtaking setting—did you think of it as a movie as you were reading? Do you think Roberts should play the part of Lila? Who would you cast in the other roles?

14. Hothouse Flower is bursting with plant life. What is your own experience with plants—do they play a role in your life?

15. The Laundromat that Armand runs is a completely magical place—have you ever seen a place like it where you live or anywhere you’ve traveled? What is it like, and how did you discover it?

Suggested Readings

Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan; Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist; Geoff Dyer, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate; Joanne Harris, Chocolat; Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

  • Hothouse Flower by Margot Berwin
  • June 01, 2010
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9780307390547

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