“The Language of Flowers”: Perennial Pleasures
A rose is a rose is a rose…except when it’s something more. Vannessa Diffenbaugh’s debut novel The Language of Flowers highlights the long forgotten practice of communicating with flowers. To the novel’s intrepid and troubled heroine, Victoria Jones, a rose could mean love, remembrance, pleasure, pain and many other emotions that she must face as she confronts her past and tries to build her future.
Diffenbaugh draws on her own experience as a foster mother to construct Victoria’s world of pain, self-protection, and redemption. By the time she was nine, Victoria had already passed through 32 foster homes. At ten, she will be deemed “unadoptable” and will become a ward of the state. Her last and best chance at joining a family is with Elizabeth, a strong but sweet woman who owns a vineyard out in the country. “I’ll wait,” Elizabeth promises when confronted with Victoria’s unruliness and detachment, the behavior that made her other foster families give her up. “I told you I would wait and I don’t intend to go back on my word.” All Elizabeth has to do is keep Victoria for a year and then she can legally adopt her, but something terrible and heartbreaking gets in the way.
The narrative zips between Victoria’s time with Elizabeth and her present as an emancipated eighteen year old struggling to find her way, creating a temporal puzzle. Each piece of Victoria’s past slowly falls into place in parallel with her current life. What happened to her and Elizabeth? Why is the language of flowers so dear to her? Diffenbaugh neatly doles out each answer. Some readers may find this too formulaic, but the content is fresh and original, which makes the structure easier to forgive.
What Victoria’s future holds, however, is still a mystery. After spending a few weeks sleeping in the park and scavenging restaurant food, she finds work with a florist. Under the firm tutelage of Renata, the shop’s owner, Victoria quickly learns the trade and flourishes. Then she meets Grant, Elizabeth’s nephew, at the market. Their shared understanding of the meaning of flowers brings them together, but romance isn’t easy for Victoria, who can’t bear to be touched and only knows burnt bridges rather than lasting connections. The strong sense of redemption that Diffenbaugh has woven into every line urges the reader on through Victoria’s tragedies and triumphs.
Imbued with sweet melancholy (geranium), buried anger (petunia), and second chances (violet), The Language of Flowers is captivating and sure to be included on every book club’s must-read list this Fall.
The Language of Flowers
By Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Ballantine. 322 pp. $25
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