Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Victoria Jones had been a ward of the State of California since she was a baby, growing up in foster care and group homes. In The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh's debut novel, Victoria narrates her own story. It begins with her emancipation at 18 and her difficult path forward, flashing back intermittently to her childhood and a misdeed that continues to haunt her.

When she was 9, Victoria learned about the Victorian craze for using flowers to communicate. This aspect of the novel was the big hook for me, since I went through a similar obsession when I was about 12. Victoria did not outgrow hers, however. A flower dictionary was her most prized possession afterwards, and she used flowers to leave messages, despite knowing that their recipients wouldn't understand. Peonies (anger) for her social worker. Zinnias (I mourn your absence) when she left another group home.

The flower Victoria chose for herself was thistle (misanthropy), and I would add lavender (mistrust) and mustard (I am hurt) to that. I don't mind prickly protagonists, and I was sympathetic to Victoria's situation, but I sometimes lost patience with the way she wallows in feeling worthless and unlovable.

Victoria's talent with flowers gets her a job in a florist shop in San Francisco, where she becomes known for her significant choices, catering to emotional needs. Before long, Victoria has her own business. "My pre-wedding consultations were as in demand as my arrangements. Couples treated their appointments like visits to a fortune-teller or priest; they told me, often for hours, the many hopes they held for their relationships, and also the challenges they faced."

Victoria's success stretched my credulity, especially given her contempt towards her customers. "The fall had officially become as busy as the summer months had been, full of demanding, superstitious brides who would rather marry on a Sunday in late autumn than use another florist. They were my least favorite. Not wealthy enough to have simply outbid other brides for the summer months and planned extravagant weddings with grace and gratitude but wealthy enough to run in the same circles and feel the grief of constant comparison. Fall brides were insecure, and the men they were marrying overindulgent."

Early on, at the flower market, Victoria meets a man who recognizes her and who also knows the language of flowers. Love is in the air and all that. Unfortunately, romance is just not my genre. The mystery of what went awry at the only foster home where Victoria had felt loved is what kept me listening to the Random House audiobook [11 hours], performed by Tara Sands. It's "unabashedly romantic" according to the Boston Globe. My bouquet for The Language of Flowers would include begonia (caution), turnip (charity) and saffron (beware of excess).

Readalikes: Chocolat (Joanne Harris) for those readers who enjoy romance; Three Little Words: A Memoir (Ashley Rhodes-Courter) for those looking for a true tale of foster care.


Claire G said...

Reading your review, I am VERY relieved not to have bothered with this book, one of the 'reads' for my bookclub recently. Thank you.

Lindy said...

I'm always glad to be of service to readers!