'I get the feeling your mother doesn't ... like me," a doctor confides to Patricia Hampl. "You got that right," Hampl thinks.
Meet "Leo the Lion," aka Mary, Hampl's fierce, petite, proud, disdainful, Irish-American mother. Mary smokes like a chimney, names her furniture ("Napoleon" is a love seat, "Benito" and "Mr. Williams" are the armchairs), frets over incorrect usage of the English language, and proudly archives even the Post-It notes of her writer daughter. ("Your mother's so Irish, she's almost Jewish," a friend tells Hampl.)
Mary married her high school sweetheart, Stan, Hampl's father, and spent her whole life in St. Paul, Minn. – as has Hampl herself. And so Hampl's new memoir, The Florist's Daughter, is a journey through two questions: "Who are these people?" (her parents) and "How is it that I never got away?"
In today's relentlessly tell-all world, a reader could be forgiven for asking if we really need another cinéma-vérité rendition of a writer's childhood. Well, in this case, yes – simply because Hampl does it so well.
"Nothing is harder to grasp than a relentlessly modest life," Hampl points out, and then goes on to lay bare the tenderness, humor, pathos, and ultimate worth found in these unassuming Midwestern lives, spent meekly assuming that everything truly important was happening elsewhere.
St. Paul itself becomes one of the book's most evocative characters. " 'A provincial capital of a middling sort,' " Hampl quotes from Gogol, noting that St. Paul "was somehow Russian – I sensed that – minus the aristocrats." And yet, she adds, "We didn't just live in the Midwest – ours was the Upper Midwest" – blessed with "a Siberian ascendancy that gave us a transcendent existence amid the boreal forests and silent stars."
Hampl's father, Stan, a Czech-American florist passionate about his work, radiates the cheery conviction that daily life is full of wonder. ("The Thoreau of St. Paul," Hampl cracks. Stan has no desire to travel to Europe – and why should he? – he hasn't yet seen all of Minnesota.)
Stan's work supplying floral arrangements to St. Paul's wealthy "cracked open a door to glamour, to sparkle and wonder." Her father was the parent who appealed more to the young Hampl. "I was on my father's side – the side of trusting people and pleasing them, the side of flowers and winking party lights."
Mary was sometimes harder for Hampl to love – and was certainly not the parent she hoped to emulate. Ever puffing on a cigarette and addicted to thick volumes of Irish history, Mary nourished an old-world hatred of the English and was ever ready to imagine the presence of "an oppressor on the doorstep, a casual cheat in the accounting department, a hypocrite lurking behind a creamy smile."
When it came to her parents' opposing worldviews, Hampl writes, it was "as if [Mary] perversely turned on harsh fluorescent lights in a room gently glowing from beeswax candles [Stan] had placed there for the pleasure of all and the betterment of the world in general."
They were oddly matched and perhaps not always happy (although the "perhaps" lingers – Hampl doesn't pretend to know all that passed between her parents. "We don't compare anyone to Stan," Mary stoutly insists in the days of her widowhood.)
But the ultimate success of their union is demonstrated through Hampl herself, whose writing blends Stan's joyous decency to Mary's darker narrative wit. (The result is rather like a significantly kinder, gentler version of that other nouveau-Midwest classic: Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections.")
The end of "The Florist's Daughter" chronicles the downward spiral of Hampl's parents' medical conditions and parts are hard to read. It also pokes into some of the darker corners in the lives of Mary and Stan – the business mistakes spawned by Stan's overly trusting nature, the casual comment of an ex-girlfriend that raises questions about his loyalty to Mary. (Although, again, Hampl is never less than generous, especially to her father.)
Hampl is a memoirist by trade. Among other titles, she is the author of "A Romantic Education" about her sojourns in her father's ancestral homeland, the former Czechoslovakia, and "Virgin Time," about her travels through Europe and finally to California in search of a better understanding of the Catholic faith into which she was born.
Here, however, Hampl seems primarily a Midwesterner. She takes a clear-eyed look at the ordinary folk around her and the myths by which they live and, without failing to acknowledge the imperfections, also finds honor and value. What it proves is that, in the end, Hampl is indeed the daughter of both Stan and Mary – and that's intended as a compliment.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.