A wonderful book, with flowers

Here’s another one of those books I might have missed had I not listened to its audio version during my commute (and, truth be told, sometimes while driving a little extra to see what happens next). And what a loss that would have been. This book is a true work of art.

By Linda Brinson

THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS. By Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Random House Audio. 11 hours. 9 compact discs. Read by Tara Sands.

This is a wonderful book that once heard – or, I am sure, read – will not soon be forgotten. Its first-person narration by Victoria Jones, a young woman who grew up in California’s foster-care system, is sometimes painful, sometimes heartbreaking, and ultimately full of grace and hope.

Tara Sands reads Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s prose with great skill, making Victoria speak convincingly. The listener believes that her sometimes flat, unemotional voice is speaking the truth, sad as it is. Victoria is as unforgiving of herself – maybe even more – as she is of those who failed her over and over throughout her lonely childhood.

We meet Victoria on her 18th birthday, when she is about to be liberated from the last of a series of group homes she’s lived in since, at age 10, she was officially deemed unadoptable. The social worker who’s found Victoria such a difficult case will take her to a transitional house, where she will have three months to find a job and start paying for her keep.

As Victoria tells us, however, she does not find a job, does not really even try, and in three months, she is an 18-year-old homeless person in San Francisco.

Victoria’s story proceeds in alternating chapters, going back and forth from the story of what happened when she was 10 and had her last big chance at adoption to what is happening now, as she tries to make it on her own.

Flowers have long been Victoria’s passion. Though she rarely applied herself in school, she has studied the Victorian notion of the language of flowers with a passion. She knows the symbolic meanings of many flowers and plants, and throughout her lonely adolescence she often bestowed flowers on people to whom she wanted to deliver a message. That the recipients rarely if ever understood did not matter to her.

Homeless, she lives in a public park, where she cultivates a small, private garden made from stolen plants. Realizing she can’t live indefinitely by stealing and eating what people leave on their plates in restaurants, Victoria manages to persuade a local florist, Renata, to hire her. At the florist shop, the girl’s almost magical knowledge of flowers and their meanings draws in customers who believe she can help them in their personal lives.

But her job at the florist shop also connects her with people in a way she has long worked to avoid. And one of those people turns out to have a link to that pivotal experience when Victoria was 10.

Diffenbaugh, we are told, has been a foster mother and has worked with youth in low-income communities. She uses her experiences well in her fiction, doing an outstanding job of making Victoria believable. Victoria makes no excuses for her often-terrible behavior, which she describes matter-of-factly. But the listener/reader comes to understand that she is pushing people away because she’s been disappointed so many times she no longer lets herself hope. Without offering apologies or belaboring the psychology at work, Diffenbaugh makes us care about Victoria, someone we might go out of our way to avoid in real life.

The book’s two storylines converge at last, and Victoria is confronted with major choices. The biggest decision she faces is whether the chance to love and be loved is worth the risk of hurting and being hurt.

The printed book includes the text of the “Dictionary of Flowers” that Victoria works on throughout much of the book. That’s a nice addition that you don’t get from the audio version. But what I really wanted was to see that dictionary illustrated with the photographs that Victoria painstakingly took of each of the flowers whose attributes she described.

Whether you listen to this fine recording or read the book yourself, this is a beautiful story, full of much of the hard truth of life, but also of the love and possibility of redemption that make life worth living.

3 responses to “A wonderful book, with flowers”

  1. I just discovered your website from the book section of the Sunday News and Record, and am glad I did for we share a love for books. I live in the area and also have a cabin in the mountains of NC. While I do enjoy Southern and Appalachian literature, I’m a real Anglophile and my favorite authors are usually Brits. I was drawn to The Language of Flowers because of early reviews and because I was lured by my love of flowers and the hint of magical realism (which you don’t mention). I posted my review on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/207031428. Are you a member of Goodreads? If not, I’d recommend it. If you are, I’d enjoy being a friend and following your reviews.

    • Hi,
      Thanks for writing. No, I’m not a member of goodreads. I am an adjunct professor as well as a freelance writer and editor, so maintaining the book blog is about all I have time to do.
      I did not mention magical realism in my review of The Language of Flowers because what was at work there with the flowers did not seem the same to me as the magical realism in the works of say, Sarah Addison Allen. Instead, it was specific to the flowers. Magical realism, in books I’ve read, seems to come as a sort of inexplicable surprise, while Victoria intentionally sets out to use flowers for communication. Maybe that’s not an important distinction, but then I don’t dwell too much on sorting books into genres.
      Anyway, I hope you’ll keep visiting the blog. I haven’t figured out how to deal with the RSS feed on the blog, but if you want to friend me on FaceBook, you will see that I post links whenever a new review goes up on the blog.
      Linda Carter Brinson

      • RSS feeds are beyond me (I never think to look there first, anyway), and I’m not on FB. So, I’ll just have to check in from time to time. I have bookmarked your site. As for magical realism, I agree it’s not as pronounced as Sarah Addison Allen’s use, but Victoria’s flowers do have an effect – creating desire, etc. even without the receiver’s knowledge of flowers. Subtle, for sure, but magical nonetheless. As for Goodreads, you could just post your blog reviews, but you don’t have to post at all. It’s a way of reading others’ views and recommendations, and there are all kinds of readers there. It could be a way of generating more traffic to your website, if you’re interested in that. I have had people from all over the country “like” my reviews, which is always a nice feedback. There’s a rating system for books – up to 5 stars, but no 1/2 stars, and you can just rate without a review if you prefer. I find different readers’ viewpoints interesting and often check out a book there first before deciding to read it. And I have reader friends who know what I like and can recommend books to me, and I’m alerted by email when any of my friends post reviews or recommend a book to me. Lucky you that you still get publishers’ advance promotional copies. On Goodreads, you can enter to win whichever ones you’re interested in, but then there are lots of others doing the same thing. However, I’ve only done that a few times, and have won two review copies, but they were some of the ones without a huge demand. Anyway, for someone who’s wary of social media, I do like Goodreads. I look forward to reading more of your reviews.

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