Review: ‘The Language of Flowers’

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The Language of Flowers
By Vanessa Diffenbaugh

  • Date finished: February 8, 2015
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 2012
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Winter 2014-15
  • Grade: B
  • Thoughts:

Reading this book, I went from liking it, to “wow, I think I really like this,” to suddenly not liking it, to feeling kinda “meh”, and then finally finishing the book with decidedly mixed feelings. Let me explain.

The Language of Flowers is a story about Victoria, an orphan who’s been a ward of the state of California her entire life. Slightly troubled and jaded by foster families who make it clear how unwanted she is, Victoria grows up bitter and angry. When she’s 10, she’s given her “last chance” at adoption with Elizabeth, a single woman who owns  a vineyard outside of San Francisco. With Elizabeth, Victoria finds love, a safe place to call home, and a somewhat kindred spirit in the woman who wants to be her mother. However, ghosts from Elizabeth’s past stir up recurrent feelings of betrayal and abandonment for Victoria, and she ruins what is perhaps her last chance at a family.

Fast forward, and now Victoria is 18 and finally emancipated from the system. She’s listless and anti-social, yet finds a job doing the only thing she has ever found passion in: flowers. Victoria is fluent in the language of flowers, a vestige of the Victorian era when every flower carried some special meaning. Victoria first learned this language from Elizabeth, and she carries this obsession with flowers into adulthood, where she becomes an expert in flower arranging, as well as finding just the perfect flower to suit every occasion, person, and situation – where words fail, Victoria manages to find just the perfect flower that will communicate what her clients actually want to say.

This is when I adopt “movie trailer” voice to intone that one day, Victoria meets someone who just might help her overcome her lingering issues with trust and aversion to closeness, but who also brings her back to that fatal event that severed Victoria from the woman who wanted to be her mother. What will happen next? Will Victoria give a love a chance, or continue to run away from those who love her?

First of all, this is one of those “book club”-type books that all the woman were asking for when I worked at Books-A-Million in 2013. I can see why: it’s got women, motherhood, orphan children, dark secrets, obstacles to overcome, etc. There’s also a nice little romance in there, to keep things interesting. For this reason, I didn’t expect to love the book, but I was hoping it was interesting.

And it was! When she’s on her game, Diffenbaugh is a surprisingly lovely writer, and the first half of the book – dealing with Victoria’s childhood with Elizabeth, and her struggle to survive immediately after being emancipated – was very compelling. I liked how this book deals with some very serious issues, including children in the foster system, and the issues they’re forced to confront at very young ages. It was heartbreaking to read of little Victoria’s bitterness, as she assumes that Elizabeth won’t like her, and will just “give her back” when things get hard. That’s not how parenting should happen (in that, parents normally aren’t allowed to give their 10-year-olds away when they do something bad, like get suspended from school or refuse to eat their dinner), and yet that’s how the foster system works. And so, it’s difficult to imagine how different the idea of family and security can be for these children.

I will also admit, I also liked the romance quite better than I thought I would – at least the beginning part. Victoria and Grant are very different kinds of protagonists to take the lead in a love story, and so it was interesting to see how these individuals – both of whom are carrying a lot of emotional baggage, and have spent most of their young adulthoods isolating themselves – come together.

All that being said, the book reached a point about three-quarters of the way through when all of a sudden, it switched from being a pretty good, complex story, to something that rather resembled a Nicholas Sparks novel. I’m not going to spoil all the plot twists, and it’s kind of hard to explain this impression, but the book just felt different all of a sudden. I felt like Diffenbaugh suddenly turned up the smaltz factor, and went a little overboard on the drama … if only to make the book’s climax all that more emotional. I just felt like … it wasn’t realistic. I don’t know. Let’s just say that there was a good few chapters that I just skimmed because it was too much.

The book ended well, though, and in the end, it wasn’t a bad read. I’d have to disagree with a reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle, who states (according to the beginning of the book) that it’s “Jane Eyre for 2011.” Um, not really. And I was irrationally annoyed at the cover. It seems like a good enough cover, until I was about a quarter of the way through and I realized: “Victoria would never wear a yellow tulle skirt and matching rainboots. That’s way to cutsy for a girl who claims, at the beginning of the book, that the word that best defines her is misanthropy.” I feel the book was much darker than the cover let on, but then, if this is a book club book, then you gotta appeal to a certain demographic. Not necessarily my demographic, but ultimately, I’m glad I gave it a shot.

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