“Patricia Hampl writes the best memoirs of any writer in the English language.”
Award-winning author Patricia Hampl now takes us to the heart of her Midwestern girlhood. She describes her debonair father’s passion for flowers and the artistry he wrought for customers as a lifelong florist in St. Paul, Minnesota. Emerging from the Great Depression on the fringes of the middle class, he was eventually able to buy the shop from its aristocratic owners, with nearly disastrous results. Evoking the delicate balance of optimism and caution, modern life and old-world nostalgia, that characterized America in the wake of World War II, Hampl’s parents also embodied two distinctly different immigration stories. Her father’s Czechoslovakian heritage was sometimes at odds with her mother’s Irish legacies: “The Irish lived the dangerous dreams of the imagination,” Hampl writes, “and if politics failed them, religion never did. Not so on the Czech side [of town] where even heaven was suspect.” Her mother’s dreams were often tinged with demands for retribution, while her father would quietly accept even the most unjust turns of fate. In stirring scenes, Hampl describes her mother’s strength in the face of breast cancer, from which she emerged with a passion for traveling alone to the green hills of her ancestral homeland—excursions that brought Irish lore to life with walks down ancient lanes and repeated pilgrimages to The Book of Kells.
This is a story of universal struggles and the pursuit of the American dream, and, most of all, of being a daughter to the end.
This guide is designed to enhance your experience of The Florist’s Daughter. We hope it will enrich your reading group’s exploration of this lush and magical memoir.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. In the opening of The Florist’s Daughter, Hampl weaves scenes of the past with images of the long good-bye she shares with her aged mother. How do these opening scenes affect you? Why is this storytelling style so powerful?
2. What were the most significant values that Hampl’s parents tried to impart to her? Which of their values had a lasting impact? Which ones became outdated?
3. How would you characterize the author’s relationship with her brother? In what ways are their personalities different? What bonds do they share near the end of their parents’ lives? What distinctions did the Hampls make between the way sons and daughters should be raised?
4. Discuss the symbolic role of flowers throughout the memoir. What is special about Mr. Hampl’s line of work? How was his outlook on life shaped by his being a dealer of roses sent to lovers or luxurious splashes of annuals installed in upper-class flower beds? Did he understand how to nurture people as well as he nurtured plants?
5. What aspects of the small-business world described in The Florist’s Daughter have vanished? Has the culture of employees changed much? How would the problem of the Christmas swindler be resolved in the twenty-first century?
6. Though united by Catholicism and a young romance, Hampl’s parents overcame differences in culture and temperament to forge a lasting marriage. In what ways did they complete one another? What might the author mean at the end of chapter four, when she writes that “unlike Mother adrift in her airy nothings, [my father] was happier outside of language. . . . He brought this silence, an aura of quiet, to the flowers he arranged. But he didn’t arrange them. It was himself he arranged”?
7. Hampl’s father made several unlucky decisions, such as the year he tried to sell expensive imported crèches but (as Leo the Lion predicted) faced a problem with the theft of baby Jesuses. Was Mr. Hampl too much of a romantic to be successful in business, or is financial success a result of other factors?
8. At the end of chapter five, the author describes her mother as learning “to level the world with a strangely knowing mistrust, an ice chip of irony on her slouched shoulder,” while “my father wants me to stay as she was, caught in the romance of innocence.” Was Hampl protected from reality? To what extent do most parents try to recapture their own pasts through their children?
9. Discuss the various communities Hampl describes in the St. Paul of her youth. Which groups had the most power? What was the role of religion in shaping a person’s standing in the community? Over the last few decades in the Midwest, have these distinctions dissolved into a uniform American identity?
10. Hampl recalls her father’s perspective on the value of an education. What generation gaps were revealed when she went to college? What turning points did she experience in her family during this bridge to adulthood?
11. What does Hampl discover about her mother when they travel together? What enabled them to see more authentic versions of each other as they grew older? What stood in the way of her mother’s dream to become a writer? What stood in the way of Hampl’s dream to follow in the path of fellow Minnesotan Scott Fitzgerald and settle on the East Coast?
12. Discuss the experience of becoming the “parent” to aging parents. When Hampl asks the doctor to treat her mother “like a sixteen-year-old who’s just crashed on her boyfriend’s motorcycle,” what is she hoping for? What aspects of her parents’ personalities did not fade? Consider scenes such as the one in which Hampl’s father decides to purchase a new car rather than go into hospice care.
13. In the memoir’s closing sections, we are presented with thoughts about what could have been. Hampl even discovers the possibility that when her father was a young man he might have loved another girl more than the one he married. Why is it important to maintain myths about our parents? What is the best way to resolve the differences between a child’s recollections of her mother and father and the parents’ memories of themselves?
14. How do your memories of your parents compare to those captured in this memoir? If you were to write a similar series of recollections, which locations, images, and realizations would figure most prominently?
15. What threads does Hampl weave through each of her memoirs? In what ways does The Florist’s Daughter enhance your appreciation for the other chapters of her life?
About the Author
PATRICIA HAMPL is the author of four previous memoirs—A Romantic Education, Virgin Time, I Could Tell You Stories, and Blue Arabesque—and two collections of poetry. She has received a MacArthur Fellowship, among many other awards. She lives in St. Paul and is Regents Professor of English at the University of Minnesota.