Monday, September 25, 2017

'The Language of Flowers' by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating 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 and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

I've been interested in reading this title since I've seen it on several book lists and heard that book clubs love it.

On her 18th birthday, Victoria Jones is let loose on the world, after being shuffled about between foster homes and homeless institutions. All she has are the clothes on her back and a vast knowledge of different flowers acquired from Elizabeth, the loving lady who almost adopted her once.

Victoria is an independent and prickly heroine who believes she has no reason to ever trust the goodness and promises of others. One of the most consistent lessons she's learned is that vulnerability seems to be taken advantage of. That's why flowers appeal to her so much. Not only are they just what they seem, but she hoards their unique meaning all to herself, believing it gives her the one-up over others.

In the Victorian era, each flower was well known to symbolise some virtue, vice or emotion, and people chose their bouquets carefully with that in mind. In other words, the recipient could tell the giver's mood by their choice of bloom. One day a young man at the flower markets alarms Victoria because he clearly understands 'flower speak' too. Then she recognises his face from her past, when she was almost happy.

It's the sort of story we can predict turns sour. Chapters weave back and forth between Victoria's childhood and the current day, and she's obviously not with Elizabeth anymore. The story is geared toward making us want to find out what happened, but when I did reach that part, the reasons for their separation seemed disappointing and a bit pathetic. It so didn't have to happen. What an anti-climax of human misunderstanding, and people ruining their own lives. I like the optimistic feeling that things were about to look up again, but couldn't quite believe how it happened.

Victoria's falling into a successful floristry business, and managing to become a business woman in high demand stretched my credibility. She's the darling of many wealthy, classy people, before she's even one year on her own. Sure she has the flower lore, but who taught her presentation skills, or bookkeeping savvy, or business acumen? It's also a stretch that the general public would start demanding her services en-masse, to the extent that some would be placed on her waiting list or miss out. Would so many people really be willing to pay big money for the language of flowers, rather than just choosing their favourite flowers as they've always done? I can't really imagine it happening in my small part of Australia, but hey, this is a huge American city, so maybe.

Anyway, I wonder how many modern florists are up with all this. If you want to pursue it further yourself, there's a good glossary at the back, with a long list of flowers and their meanings. That was a wise move on the publisher's part, since it comes across generous, but if they hadn't included it, I for one would have complained about its absence.

So overall, I found it a pleasant read but not brilliant. Too many poor decisions, and too much unbelievable luck in spite of them all. Maybe I'm just sore because one of my favourite flowers, lavender, gets a bad wrap. It's meant to mean 'mistrust' and Victoria manages to get all the sprigs of lavender in the city wilting, un-bought in their buckets. Hey, I'd still buy it. No herd mentality for me. At the end of the day, a pretty flower and lovely scent mean just what you want them to.


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