I wanted to like Margot Berwin’s first novel, Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire. The author took a leap of faith when she left a career in advertising for an uncertain future in fiction writing. That Julia Roberts bought the movie rights to the novel seemed to be a a ringing endorsement of Berwin’s faith in her own talent. Besides, the book has one of those red and gold covers that resemble nothing as much as a box of fine chocolate filled with delicious surprises. I really wanted to find this rambling story praiseworthy and there may be room for praise in n the idea of mixing magical realism, New Age platitudes, botany, love and greed. There is a certain charm in some of the principals in Berwin’s cast of characters, Lila Nova, a recently divorced advertising executive from Manhattan; the mysterious Armand, a girthy Colombian with teeth shaped liked Chiclets and a Laundromat filled with tropical plants; Lila’s coworker, a recovering surfer who goes by the improbable moniker of Kodiak Starr–Keanu Reeves, call Julia– smokes a powerful amount of pot and talks trash. Add a Fabioesque Huichol quasi-shaman, drag the lot to the Yucatan Peninsula and you have elements that Isabel Allende could have transmuted into something better than a bubbly beach read.

Unfortunately, the magic never happens. For all that she delivers herself of ponderous insights, Lila fails to become real to the reader who learns only that she is blond and thin enough to be trundled through a steamy stretch of jungle in the muscular arms of the Huichol heartthrob. Her search for love, money and self-realization reads like a travelogue. Her guru Armand, he of the Chiclet teeth and mystical pronouncements–no doubt to be played by Alfredo Molina– sounds like a mix of Deepak Chopra, Doctor Phil and Oprah, a rather insalubrious combination for a person of Colombian extraction. The countrysexual–the author’s own word coinage, meaning the opposite of metrosexual–proves to be something else altogether and the most memorable characteristic of His Dudeness Kodiak is that he thinks that Mexico is a South American country.
I slogged through the jungle, braved snakes mosquitoes and scorpions with these folks. I endured pseudo-Huichol shamanistic displays of affection. I tried to commune with the spirit of the Pantera onca, Lila‘s animal totem, and found it to be a cardboard cat. I closed the book hoping that Berwin will do better next time. She does a tremendous job with botanic trivia. As gardening book, this could have been intriguing.