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Review: ‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Review: ‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh post image

Title: The Language of Flowers
Author: Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Genre: Fiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: Book Expo America 2011
Rating: ★★★★☆

Review: Victoria Jones grew up in the foster care system. Prickly, angry, and difficult, she never really found a family connect with. When she is emancipated from the system at 18, she has nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help. Her only real skill is her deep understanding of the Victorian language of flowers, where each bloom can be used to convey feelings. Victoria is plucked from the streets when a local florist discovers her talent with flowers, but in order to grab on to this lifeline, Victoria needs to confront her past and learn to love and be loved.

I’ve had a copy of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers on my bookshelf since Book Expo America 2011, but despite the lovely reviews it never seemed like a book I wanted to pick up. When I was struggling with insomnia last month, I tried to pick books to read before bed that I thought would be soothing and help lull me to sleep. In that respect, The Language of Flowers was a total failure — I was immediately and totally drawn into this story and had a hard time putting it down each night when I started to feel drowsy.

The biggest draw of the story is the characters. Victoria is utterly fascinating and sympathetic and frustrating. As a product of the foster care system, Victoria grew up being shuttled from home to home, constantly abandoned by the people charged to care for her because of her inability to connect with others. I don’t know much about mental illnesses, but it’s hard not to imagine that Victoria suffers from some undiagnosed form of autism that makes it even more difficult for her to build relationships.

The other characters of the story — Victoria’s boss, a mysterious flower vendor with connections to Victoria’s past, and the one foster mother who had a chance to connect with Victoria — are equally compelling, although never as fully-drawn as Victoria because the book is told from her very skewed point of view.

I also loved the back-and-forth structure of the story, which shifts from the present to Victoria’s past elegantly and effectively. It’s always clear why Diffenbaugh chooses to end a chapter at a certain point, and how each time jump connects to the broader theme and growth Victoria is experiencing.

My one critique is that there’s a sort of strange and, to my mind, unnecessary, undertone of magical realism — Victoria’s connection to flowers makes her able to create arrangements that actually impact people’s lives. For a novel so steeped in an intensely real world of family and love and connection, this slightly fantastical element felt a little out of place to me.

But really, that’s a minor critique when compared to how swiftly and completely I was drawn into this story. The Language of Flowers was beautifully written, with a rich and frustrating central character who I managed to love despite her many flaws and poor decisions, and a plot that kept me turning the pages long after I should have been asleep.

Other Reviews: Words and Peace |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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  • Emma @ Words And Peace July 10, 2012, 7:35 am

    Great review. I also enjoyed this book. I added your review in my post; actually this month, I’m starting doing this automatically: I look in my Google reader which of my followers has already published a review of the book I’m just posting about, and I include them in my post.
    so you are here: http://wordsandpeace.com/2011/10/07/73-review-the-language-of-flowers/

    • Kim July 11, 2012, 6:37 pm

      I try to do that too, but sometimes I get lazy 🙂 Thanks for sharing your review!

  • Trisha July 10, 2012, 7:49 am

    I love it when a book unexpectedly grabs you!

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) July 10, 2012, 8:18 am

    I adored this book!! The characters and the story were fantastic. My book club had a wonderful discussion about it and flowers.

  • Stephanie July 10, 2012, 8:57 am

    I love character driven novels, and this sounds right up my alley. I think I’d be drawn to this book for the title alone. 🙂 Thanks for the terrific review.

  • Vasilly July 10, 2012, 10:13 am

    I really enjoyed this book. I’m glad you did too. Victoria is such a flawed person but your heart goes out to her at each decision she makes. When it came to the “magical” flower thing, I thought of it this way: people believed that her arrangements worked because Victoria believed in them. Flowers were the only stable thing she had in her hectic world. Great review.

    • Kim July 11, 2012, 6:39 pm

      Yes, that’s exactly it. Your heart just breaks for her whenever she makes a clearly wrong decision. I think that’s a good interpretation of the flowers thing — I didn’t think of that!

  • Marlena July 11, 2012, 8:14 am

    I really enjoyed this book. It had a great element of unlikable characters who are redeemed – making it more “real” than a standard book, or where the author could have taken the story. Great review.

    • Kim July 11, 2012, 6:40 pm

      Yes, definitely. This one went in unexpected directions, and I didn’t see the ending coming.

  • Penelope July 11, 2012, 1:14 pm

    As a foster parent and bookworm, I’m looking forward to reading this one.

  • softdrink July 11, 2012, 9:56 pm

    I finally caved and bought this a few weeks ago. Now I just have to read it!

  • Heather July 12, 2012, 5:59 am

    I thought this was an absolutely gorgeous novel. And I totally agree about Victoria’s autism – for sure she had some real difficulty connecting with other people and having “normal” relationships.

    • Kim July 21, 2012, 12:57 pm

      I liked that whatever type of mental illness she has, if any, was never made explicit (at least, not that I can remember). It seemed more real to me that a girl growing up as she did either wouldn’t have been diagnosed or even identify with a label like that.

  • Andi (@estellasrevenge) July 12, 2012, 10:23 am

    I’ve been quite resistant to this one, but reading your review makes me feel better about it! Gonna try to read it in time for the next book club meeting at my local indie.

    • Kim July 21, 2012, 12:58 pm

      The premise sounded a little outside what I normally like, for sure, but I was really sucked in to it.