Photo: swimmer Yucatán rain forest

The Yucatán rain forest plays a supporting role in Margot Berwin's new book.

Photograph by Emmanuel Lattes

By Don George

June 2009

Book of the Month: 
Hot House Flower and the 9 Plants of Desire,
by Margot Berwin

Lush, fecund, moist, sensual, voluptuous. These words all come to mind to describe the setting for Margot Berwin's debut novel, Hot House Flower and the 9 Plants of Desire. This semi-surreal adventure starts out in Manhattan, but in a sliver of the city dedicated to the care and cultivation of tropical plants. In this humid sub-culture we meet the protagonist Lila, a newly divorced advertising executive; a laundromat that doubles as a greenhouse; and two dueling tropical plant-devotees, David Exley and a man known only as Armand, who introduce Lila to the nine plants of the novel's title.

The second part of the narrative revolves around these nine mythical plants and Lila's obsessed quest to venture into the heart of the Yucatán rain forest to find them. While the plants play important supporting roles in this unfurling, the real star is the setting itself, a place where "murky, dank, dark, rotting jungle" magically opens onto bright blue sea and sky and white sand beach, and where ancient secrets unfold in surprising ways.

The novel identifies this setting as the Costa Maya, in the state of Quintana Roo, an unspoiled region at the southeastern tip of Mexico, about four and a half hours south of Cancún by car. Introducing the city girl to this wild locale, Berwin nicely grafts a New Yorker sensibility onto a wild tropics scene. On her first encounter with the sea, Lila describes the water as "so electric-blue it looked as if someone had dumped a vat of Ty-D-Bowl into it." When she first alights on the rain forest floor, she compares the sensation to walking on a trampoline. And when the sun—and the temperature—rises, she steams, "Walking in the rain forest was like walking under a hot shower that was originating from my own body."

Berwin vividly evokes the mosquito-loud, velvety blackness of a rain forest night, lit by the day-bright moon, and the cacophonic sunrise, all screaming macaws and monkeys shaking down coconuts and mangoes that make the ground thunder. And as Lila's escapades open to encompass scorpions, panthers, and pythons, shamans and charlatans, the pages suffuse with Costa Maya mystery.

New-Book Roundups:
Get Shorty

A collection of 12 short stories from 2008 MacArthur "genius" award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Thing Around Your Neck explores the ties that bind Nigeria and the United States. Man Booker Prize-winning author Aravind Adiga's short-story compilation, Between the Assassinations, is set in Kittur, southern India, and follows a diverse cast of characters in the years between the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and that of her son Rajiv in 1991. The short stories in The Beijing of Possibilities, by Jonathan Tel, link a group of Beijing residents who range from a messenger of Gorillagrams to an advertising exec who signs up with a dating service.

Family Portraits

The Wish Maker, by Ali Sethi, sketches the members of a boisterous extended family in modern-day Lahore, Pakistan, as 20-year-old Zaki Shirazi comes home from his Massachusetts college to attend his cousin's wedding. The novel The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, by Farahad Zama, takes a light-hearted look at an arranged-marriage business in contemporary India. Mariolina Venezia tells the stories of five generations of a memorable southern Italian family from World War I to the 1980s in Been Here a Thousand Years. Border Songs, by Jim Lynch, goes behind news headlines to depict life in a small U.S.-Canada border town, full of quiet family drama, odd local characters, and an appreciation for a rural way of life that's changing.

Reading Matchmaker
If You Like...

...the "Afghan Girl," the famous photograph of the refugee with the haunting green eyes that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, check out the newest monograph by its photographer, Steve McCurry. Titled The Unguarded Moment, the handsome book from Phaidon Press collects 75 new and iconic landscape-format images from one of the most admired photojournalists working today. They range from fishermen checking their nets in a lake in Kashmir to a baby in a bicycle sling in Angkor, Cambodia.

One Last Thing
Starting Over in Kauai

Beginning a new life in a paradisiacal place is a popular fantasy. It prompted Peter Mayle to move to Provence and Frances Mayes to Tuscany. On numerous visits toHawaii over the years, I have had my own Peter Mayle moments, looking over a sun-splashed scene of blue-green water, sprawling sand beach, and waving palm trees, and thinking: What if I quit my job, sold my house, and just moved here? What would that be like? Lucinda Fleeson answers that question in her compelling new memoir, Waking Up in Eden. When an unexpected offer to work at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii arrives, Fleeson leaves her job as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and moves to the edge of a rain forest in rural Kauai. With a reporter's skill for unearthing and explaining complicated histories and a travel writer's keen eye and ear for the illuminating detail, Fleeson fills in the fantasy's blank—and paints a multi-faceted portrait of Paradise.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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