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?