the Language of Flowers
A debut novel
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Synopsis from LoveReadingUk:
The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in communicating feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen, Victoria has nowhere to go, and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. When her talent is discovered by a local florist, she discovers her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But it takes meeting a mysterious vendor at the flower market for her to realise what’s been missing in her own life, and as she starts to fall for him, she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, and decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.
LoveReadingUK released an excerpt of the Language of Flowers and tweeted for reviewers to apply stating why they wanted to review the novel. I applied because I was intrigued. The excerpt (Chapter 5) told how Victoria was settling into a foster home and yet the synopsis told us she was eighteen and homeless – what happened between the time in the foster home and ‘present’ day to lead to her being homeless and alone?
The story begins in present day. Victoria is eighteen and leaving the group home to go to a Gathering House (where she will live rent free for three months which should give her a chance to find a job). The other girls in the group home have given her a not very pleasant birthday present to wake up to and we get to learn of Victoria’s recurring nightmare.
The chapters alternate between Victoria’s time being fostered by Elizabeth when she was nine and the present day. I thought this worked really well as each story builds in intensity and leads us to a point where past and present collide.
Living with Elizabeth, we gradually see Victoria becoming the child she really could be. She tests Elizabeth with her anger and her rage and it’s the way Elizabeth responds that leads to Victoria starting to believe in herself and accepting it might be possible for someone to love her. It is with Elizabeth that she learns the language of flowers and while being home schooled by Elizabeth, she also learns the science. We become aware of a feud between Elizabeth and her sister Catherine.
At eighteen, Victoria is so wary of people and life ………….. she reminded me of an injured animal. The total fear towards intimacy and friendships. The deep mistrust of life. She doesn’t trust herself in having any relationships because she’s been taught by the system that she ruins everything and is not worth being loved.
The way Renata, the local florist, offers her a job is so matter-of-fact. Their relationship works well purely because there are no questions and very little interaction although ‘behind the scenes’ Renata is planning and making things happen for her that Victoria doesn’t find out until it’s already done. I enjoyed the mystique that grew around Victoria as her reputation spread of being able to choose flowers that would make a difference in others lives.
I thought the way the mysterious vendor at the flower market communicates with Victoria, through the message of flowers, was brilliant. I loved the way their friendship also came across as matter-of-fact. They just accepted each other despite their own deep wounds.
I found it easy to visualise Victoria compiling her own ‘dictionary’ on flowers and their language – both in the library and in situ. I loved the way she debated with the flower vendor the meanings of the different flowers. I think the dictionary after the story has ended is a lovely touch.
At one of those vital turning points in the story, the author very cleverly has a chapter on the past ending with Victoria in hospital while the following chapter on the present also has Victoria in hospital. A reflection of each other – both making a huge impact on her life.
My intrigue was kept alive almost to the end of the book – it kept me avidly focussed. We intuit that something terrible happened at Elizabeth’s home and when Victoria realises who the mysterious flower vendor is, we find out she has spent years trying not to think about what she’d done, trying not to remember what she’d lost. This theme runs through the past and the present.
For me, the Language of Flowers is a powerful story of the feminine principle in our culture – woman as nurturer – and no matter how flawed we think that love is, it is often enough for us to function in the world and to become our own person. It is also about family and what holds it together/tears it apart and of course the language that the flowers speak – the messages that can be given.
The ending was exactly how I wanted it to be – a lot more growing and understanding to get through. I loved the possibility of what might be in Victoria’s future, symbolised by the daffodil, hawthorn and hazel.
This is one book that is a ‘keeper’ for me. It will stay on my bookshelf.
I would like to thank LoveReadingUK and Pan Macmillan for sending me an uncorrected proof copy to review.
The Language of Flowers is published by Macmillan 18 August 2011.
About the Author
Vanessa Diffenbaugh was born and raised in California. After studying creative writing, she went on to teach art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband PK have three children: Tre’von, 18, Chela 4, and Miles, 3. Tre’von, a former foster child, is attending New York University on a Gates Millennium Scholarship. Vanessa and her family live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.