Book review: ‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Growing up in foster care, Victoria Jones knows all about instability. Her only constant has been the need for self-reliance — especially as she bounces from one bad situation to the next. Now reaching her 18th birthday, the time has come for Victoria to hit San Francisco’s streets alone — though she doesn’t expect them to hit so hard. Now jobless, homeless and without any prospects, the future seems bleak. Victoria is just too stubborn to realize it.

Without any skills or real education, Victoria is a drifter . . . until she runs into a local flower shop owner in need of help. Victoria’s passion for flowers and the Victorian “language” of communicating through blossoms is reawakened, dormant since a falling out years before, and she works tirelessly for enough cash to keep her off the streets. With the help of Renata, her mentor, she begins to establish herself — and her beautiful, offbeat arrangements develop a reputation as a curer of ills.

Everything she’s worked to build threatens to unravel, however, when she falls in love with Grant, a local farmer — and the challenges Victoria has already faced seem like nothing compared to what’s to come . . .

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers is a heart-wrenching, frustrating, enveloping piece of fiction. Though I alternated between wanting to slap Victoria and desperately needing to give her a hug, I found myself really caring about her — and everyone in the story. For good or for ill, they were all up in my headspace for the week in which I listened to this novel on audio. And though I was emotionally spent by the end, I didn’t want it to be over.

Victoria is a pretty complicated character. On one side is this scared, rebellious, defiant girl — this child who wants no one; no one who wants this child. When Victoria gets this one chance at having a family and categorically blows it, I felt unbelievably upset with her . . . just like her social worker, who plays a large role in young Victoria’s life. But as the angry kid grows into a frightened and belligerent teen, we’re given a glimpse at a very raw and vulnerable Victoria — one no one really sees.

Diffenbaugh was masterful in this way. Just when I wanted to write Victoria off, shake her or run from her or lecture her, she showed us a tender view of this 18-year-old misfit — and how could I walk away from her then? She clearly needs help, and doesn’t know how to get it. Having never really felt like she received or was worthy of love, how could she offer it to Grant? Her first instinct is always to run and ruin, and I kind of . . . understood that.

Though the novel’s “twists” weren’t terribly shocking, I was too caught up in this fast-moving plot to care too much about its predictable turns. The author flips between present-day Victoria and her childhood, revealing the truth of what happened to rip her away from Elizabeth, Victoria’s one-time hopeful adoptive mother. I liked the alternating chapters and thought the story was touching and heartbreaking. It made me think about how so few questions in life provide easy answers — and that what we think we want often turns out to be so different than reality.

Arguably the most interesting part of the story was the actual “language of flowers,” though. Victoria is well-versed in what different blooms “mean,” and she finds differing descriptions of this language fascinating. As she and Grant develop a dictionary of definitive answers for cherry blossoms, tulips, roses and more, Victoria begins to speak not in blooms but . . . well, in words. Like, English ones. She’s hidden so much of herself away, blocked off and stunted, that it takes communicating in an old Victorian tradition to emotionally jump start her.

The story didn’t always go the way I wanted, and Victoria herself could be as annoying as she was endearing. But at the end of The Language of Flowers, I was in her camp — and ready to support her. Her character’s growth was tremendous, and I chalk Diffenbaugh’s excellent storytelling up to forming what would have otherwise been a sad, sad tale into one of hopeful redemption. It was heartwarming and raw and maybe not completely realistic, but who cares? I really liked it.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0345525558 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Facebook
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

A note on the audio: Narrator Tara Sands did an excellent job shifting between 18-year-old Victoria and Victoria as a child, though I found her voice just on the edge of being too young for the adolescent narrator. It was a little discomfiting sometimes, hearing the voice of such a young woman dealing with so many difficult, frightening “adult” issues. Though maybe that was the point?

Book review: ‘Where We Belong’ by Emily Giffin

May contain minor spoilers, but likely nothing you won’t infer from the jacket copy.

Emily Giffin and Jennifer Weiner are my women of summer. Without their smartly-written, sassy brand of women’s fiction, my long flights and days at the beach would take on the dull patina of an old photograph. I need their tales of love, friendship and what-might-have-been to fully enjoy my vacations. And Emily Giffin’s latest, out July 24, does not disappoint.

Sophisticated Marian Caldwell has worked hard to keep the past way past. Now a successful television producer in New York City, she’s living the dream: city living; great career; and handsome, wealthy boyfriend — a man who is clearly crazy about her, even if he’s not clear on his intentions for their shared future.

After another argument about the “M” word, Marian is surprised to find a visitor in her hall: 18-year-old Kirby Rose, a pretty teen drummer with seeking answers. Kirby’s arrival throws a wrench into Marian’s carefully-constructed identity, and her probing forces Marian to recall a past she’d hoped was sealed shut. But once the wheels are set in motion, they cannot be stopped — and Marian and Kirby have no choice but to go in search of “the one thing missing in their lives.” And what they discover surprises them both.

Emily Giffin’s Where We Belong struck a deep chord with me. Having guessed the connection between Kirby and Marian simply from reading the cover blurb (as you likely have, too), I figured this story of first love, youth and redemption would ultimately bring me to tears. And it did.

Marian is the sort of polished, Type-A New Yorker often populating women’s fiction. Determined to make it big from an early age, she’s dedicated her professional life to paying her dues and moving swiftly up the ladder — and her relationship with Peter, the head of her TV network, doesn’t hurt. Still, she believes their love is genuine; their affection is clear, anyway. And that feels good enough. For a while.

Outgoing Kirby, preparing for her high school graduation, has always felt separate from her hard-working parents and perfect younger sister. Aware she was adopted at birth, Kirby doesn’t bear any ill will toward her family or carry a chip on her shoulder about her biological parents . . . but she’s always wondered about them, thought of them, maintained an active curiosity about who and where they were. As her eighteenth birthday approaches, she’s able to request the name of her biological mother — which leads her to Marian, logically. But fearing her parents’ hurt feelings regarding her search, she chooses to keep her quest secret.

Things don’t go smoothly. Having a long-lost birth daughter appear on your doorstep late one random night isn’t exactly a recipe for a joyful reunion. Stunned, Marian attempts to make sense of Kirby’s sudden presence in her world — but it’s not easy. Her mere existence has been kept a secret from several key people in Marian’s life, and the day of reckoning seems to be upon her. And it’s terrifying.

Marian herself is a bit of a vacuum. Beyond her ambition and high-powered TV job, we don’t know much about her — and live more in the past, in fact, than we do in the present. Where We Belong flashes between present day and life for Marian and her first love almost two decades earlier, before life became undeniably complicated. As Marian’s story unfolds, it’s hard at times to sympathize with her and her decisions . . . but I tried to put myself in her place, questioning what I would do as a scared 18-year-old deeply flushed with shame, doubt and uncertainty.

The story really picks up as Marian and Kirby reunite in search of their shared link: a man named Conrad. I found the flashbacks of Marian and Conrad’s summer together very romantic, authentic and painful. Giffin perfectly crystallizes that moony, delightful stage of first love — a time that can never be recaptured again. My heart broke as the story unfolded, desperately hoping things could turn out differently . . . but knowing they couldn’t. And wouldn’t. Where We Belong’s main strength came in the form of these recollections, I think, and how much they made my heart hurt. Giffin knows her stuff.

The subject of adoption is handled with a great deal of grace and sensitivity, too. Always aware that Kirby already has a mother, Marian treads their new relationship carefully. She acts more like a protective aunt, or an older friend, and is always sure to avoid stepping on the Roses’ toes. I respected her for backing away when she needed to, and for paying careful attention to Mrs. Rose’s feelings. It was the kind, mature thing to do.

I read this entire book on a five-hour plane ride, racing to find out what would become of this beleaguered crew. Though I had a few quibbles with the plot’s predictability, it was nothing that ultimately hurt the story for me. Giffin delivers good women’s fiction, that’s for sure, with a cast of dimensional characters and a story of love and redemption I couldn’t put down. Though it didn’t have the punch of Something Borrowed, my favorite of her novels, it resonated with me. And I think it’ll resonate with you, too.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0312554192 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Between, Georgia’ by Joshilyn Jackson

Oh, Joshilyn Jackson. How do you craft such intriguing, lovable characters? And create a menagerie of love and amusement out of such weird, dysfunctional people? And because I loved this book so much and the description itself is funny and awesome, here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Nonny Frett understands the meaning of the phrase “in between a rock and a hard place” better than any woman alive. She’s got two mothers, “one deaf-blind and the other four baby steps from flat crazy.” She’s got two men: a husband who’s easing out the back door; and a best friend, who’s laying siege to her heart in her front yard. And she has two families: the Fretts, who stole her and raised her right; and the Crabtrees, who won’t forget how they were done wrong.

Now, in Between, Georgia, a feud that began the night Nonny was born is escalating and threatening to expose family secrets. Ironically, it might be just what the town needs… if only Nonny weren’t stuck in between.

To say I raced through this book is an understatement. As I borrowed an audio version from the library (time crunch!), I found myself prolonging errands so I could spend just a little more time in Between. I loved that Jackson incorporated completely out-of-the-box characters like Stasia Frett, a blind and deaf woman who felt compelled to become Nonny’s mother when her biological mess of a teenage birth mother couldn’t care for her.

As Between is such a small town, the Fretts and Crabtrees no each other very well. Tthe Crabtrees might be hardscrabble poor and vicious, but that doesn’t mean they take kindly to their own flesh and blood being taken in by a holier-than-thou Frett.

Sometimes it’s hard to articulate why you mesh so well with a story, but I’ve quickly become enamored with Jackson and find myself savoring each and every one of her words like an expensive truffle. Though Nonny could be boneheaded at times, I thought she was a wonderful and caring person — a truly great daughter — and couldn’t help but laugh at the Frett sisters, all of whom were good-hearted but more than a little eccentric. Bernese was probably my favorite. Jackson always has at least one character that brings the zingers, making you laugh or cry at the most unexpected moments. That was definitely Bernese for me.

Entertaining and heartwarming by the close, I wanted to drive my own self down to share a glass of tea with the ladies of Between, Georgia. Nonny’s struggles with family — those who gave you life versus those with whom you make a life — will ring true for many. Fans of Southern fiction and Jackson’s exquisite storytelling will find plenty to love here, and I can’t wait to pick up her newest novel: A Grown-Up Kind Of Pretty.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0446699454 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal audio book borrowed from my local library

My thoughts on the narration: As with Backseat Saints, my first experience with Jackson, Between, Georgia was narrated by the author herself. She has impeccable timing and a warm, pleasant voice. I thought her take on Henry, Nonny’s unlikely love interest, was a little exaggerated — he sounded like a Creole caricature, really — but loved everything else about her sweet Southern lilt. She’s awesome.

Book review: ‘The Irresistible Henry House’ by Lisa Grunwald

Orphan Henry is only four months old when he arrives on a college campus and into the arms of Martha Gaines, house matron of the school’s home economics program. As the school’s newest “practice baby,” Henry is brought to the university to be raised by a group of young female students training in the domestic arts. For one week at a time, a student will live in the practice house and be Henry’s “mother,” tending to his every need. And after a few years, Henry will have been reared using the finest childcare methods and ready to be adopted by a “real” family.

But like everything in Henry’s young life, that fate isn’t in the cards.

Through trials and missteps, guilt and punishment, fear and the tiny tentacles of love, Henry becomes the first child in the practice house to stay on past his second or third birthday. Under the watchful and fierce eye of Martha, a childless widow who can’t let him go, Henry grows up having little sense of belonging and a tenuous grasp of love. And over the next few decades of life, he struggles to move past his feelings of belonging to everyone — and belonging to no one. Not even himself.

Lisa Grunwald’s The Irresistible Henry House is a fascinating premise that had me scrambling to pick it up, but I couldn’t eventually shake my feelings of exhuastion. I knew this was going to be a long, long journey with Henry — and though I was happy to have made it, I can’t say it always felt worth it.

Henry is, as expected, a very complicated, dissolute character. Charming and seductive. Practiced but ill at ease. Troubled but brilliant. And though I fell for him as a man, I found myself increasingly frustrated by his behavior. I understood it, sure. But it didn’t always make him someone for whom I rooted. More often than not, I wanted to give him a quick slap to his emotionally-unavailable face.

But what Grunwald has created is a complex, interesting and long novel that propelled me forward with each page. Though I was disappointed to learn the truth of Henry’s origins so early on, that didn’t keep me from continuing with his story. Grunwald’s peripheral characters — like Dr. Gardner, Martha, Betty — were well-drawn and interesting people, though I often felt like Martha was a wee bit deranged. It was hard to feel sympathetic toward her when she seemed to rely so completely on the acceptance and love of a child — and he didn’t deserve the burden of her undivided attention. It made me very angry with her, but any book that inspires a reaction from me — even loathing — is often a good one.

My trouble with the novel was, more than anything, its size. I mean, this book is huge. When I say we go on a journey with Henry, I mean we go on a journey. We meet him almost at conception, really, and then follow him through his complicated childhood, teen years, raucous adventures as a young man and, finally, during his own fumblings toward domesticity. Even at his weakest, we see a glimmer of the charisma that draws women to him like crazy. Henry — handsome; dashing; unavailable — is like a beacon in the night.

Grunwald’s world of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s is clearly researched. As Henry grows up and begins to nurse his artistic abilities, his travels out west and to a certain famous studio were some of the most interesting parts of the narrative. I really loved his relationship with Mary Jane, too; I’m a sucker for the best-friends-maybe-lovers storyline. And the fact that they met as kids was really charming.

Readers of historical fiction and family dynamics might take to Henry and his unconventional upbringing, and I appreciated the cameos by famous folks like Dr. Spock and Walt Disney. Catapulting the story to London was another pleasant surprise, and I give bonus points for the heartwarming ending. Though I felt it took far too long to get there, I had that warm glowing feeling as soon as I closed this one. Grunwald — and Henry — did win me over.

3.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 0812973224 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Secret Daughter’ by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Doctors Somer and Krishnan felt fortunate to find one another — and their tireless medical work in California left little time to think about starting a family. But when Somer decides she’s ready to get pregnant, the pieces don’t come together. It’s the first time she feels as though she’s “failed.”

Halfway around the world, Kavita is huddled in a birthing tent in her rural Indian village, preparing to give birth to her second daughter. Knowing her husband, Jasu, won’t be pleased unless she returns with a precious son, she makes the heartbreaking decision to give her little girl up for adoption. Kavita makes the perilous journey to Bombay to leave her beloved, Usha, at an agency there; it’s the only way she can be assured the child might survive.

A year or more goes by before Krishnan brings Somer, his American wife, to India — his homeland; the world his family still calls home. They arrive to bring home Asha, the child they’ve both longed to welcome into their lives — the missing piece to complete their family.

Over the course of several decades, the lives of two couples will blend as they’re united through their love for one woman — one secret daughter. And their journey together is anything but simple.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s Secret Daughter is an epic voyage across time and cultural lines, trying to define what it means to be a family — linked either by familiarity, background, blood . . . or, simply, by love.

Though I really enjoyed Asha’s journey into her heritage and her attempt to discover the truth about her early life, I’d be untruthful if I didn’t admit that, for the majority of the book, I found her to be a disagreeable character. I empathized with her quest for truth, but it seemed like she took every available opportunity to remind Somer that she isn’t her “real” mother. She never says this, no, but Asha constantly sulks about how Somer just doesn’t “understand” her the way her adopted father, Krishnan, does. When Somer complains of feeling like an outsider in her own family, I could see what she meant. And it was sad.

But Somer didn’t always seem like she was trying. Over the course of the years she and Krishnan are together, I could see them drifting apart . . . and I wasn’t sure who was really at fault. Maybe no one — or everyone. Somer seems to isolate herself — but Kris allows her to be isolated. As Asha grows and pursues a life that takes her closer to her birthplace, Somer seemed resigned to just . . . let it all happen.

Hopping around the globe to Kavita and Jasu, their lives were filled with unimaginable peril as they left the comfort of their village for Mumbai, where they can only afford a small hut in the slums as Jasu tries to find a job to support them. I’m fascinated by Indian culture and the lives of its billion-plus residents, but reading Gowda’s novel was heartwrenching. I enjoyed Secret Daughter most when we were spending time with Kavita, a woman who proves what a resilient, tough heart she has. I can’t begin to process the things she has seen and experienced, and my heart ached for her as her only son, Vijay, grew in unexpected ways. Nothing in her life seemed to go as planned.

Every path in the novel seems to be headed to a meeting point — a place of union; a release, a resolution. As the book progressed, I turned the pages faster and faster to learn of Asha’s fate — and what would become of her fractured family. Secret Daughter provided a solid perspective on the adoption process from both sides and, though I didn’t particularly like some of the characters, I got a good feel for them and sympathized with their plights.

Full of amazing sensory detail and colorful descriptions of life on two ends of the globe, Gowda’s book paints a realistic, memorable picture of life for two families — and the daughter who unites them. Though I wanted to engage more with Somer and Krishnan and hoped for stronger character development, I still enjoyed Secret Daughter and was pleased with its resolution.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0545230500 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review