Friday, November 20, 2015

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Reviewed by Ambrea

Victoria Jones has spent her entire life bouncing between foster homes, cultivating solitude and growing mistrust—and, more notably, memorizing the meanings of flowers.  At eighteen, homeless and penniless, Victoria discovers she has a unique gift as a florist and, as her talents grow, she realizes that the flowers she chooses for her bouquets are able to help people and give them what they most want, like honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love.  But after a chance encounter at the flower market with a man from her past, Victoria must confront some of her most painful secrets if she wishes to protect her present and ensure her future.

For the most part, I enjoyed The Language of Flowers.  Vanessa Diffenbaugh combines esoteric knowledge of flowers, the Victorian language of flowers, with the modern plight of a young girl trapped within the foster care system.  I liked that Diffenbaugh took the time and effort to show her readers the meanings of flowers and plants:  moss for motherhood, ferns for secrecy, daisies for innocence, honeysuckle for devotion, turnips for charity, sage for good health.  I was surprised to learn that sunflowers mean “false riches,” and yellow roses represent “infidelity.”  And I was especially interested in the combinations of flowers which Victoria used to communicate.  It gives the story a subtlety, gives Victoria a guarded quality, that made The Language of Flowers a unique tone.

Likewise, I liked being able to see the world from Victoria’s perspective, to witness her struggle to find normalcy and stability in a system that’s anything but.  I was intrigued by the glimpses Diffenbaugh gave into Victoria’s life—into the life of a foster child, into the life of a young homeless woman struggling to find her place in the world—and I was shocked by what I found.  As the parent of a foster child, Diffenbaugh has had an inside view on the types of struggles that foster and adoptive children endure as they transition to a new home—or fall back into the system.  She knows the difficulties these children face; moreover, I think she does fairly well at illuminating these issues in Victoria’s story.

However, I didn’t feel like I could properly relate to Victoria.  Something about the way she was characterizing, or the way she tells her story, made it difficult for me to become attached to her as a narrator, to really sink into her story.  I was eager to reach some kind of happy ending, but I wasn’t nearly as invested in her story as I could have been.  I think I would have understood Victoria better if I had read Diffenbaugh’s explanation of her character, which she gave in the back of the book in an interview:

“The hardest part of writing [The Language of Flowers] was finding the right balance in Victoria’s character.  I wanted her to be tough, distrustful, and full of anger:  all characteristics that would be true to her history of being abandoned at birth and never knowing love.  But I also wanted the reader to root for her—to understand her capacity to be gentle and loving, even before Victoria understands it herself.  So in the first fifty pages of the novel, she spends much of her time nurturing plants:  smoothing petals, checking moisture, and cradling shocked roots.  This felt like the perfect way to show both sides of her character, long before it would have been possible for me to describe her displaying affection or kindness toward another human being.”

Personally, I think I would have better understood her emotional state—her desperation, her doubt and fear, her distrust and anger and hatred toward others—better if I’d had the opportunity to read the author’s interpretation of Victoria.  For that reason, I think The Language of Flowers may be worth a second attempt at reading.  I think I better understand Victoria, and I think I could better appreciate Diffenbaugh’s novel after having the chance to see the author’s personal thoughts and gather my own insights into the novel.

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