Vanessa Diffenbaugh: The Language of Flowers (2011)

The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in communicating feelings like grief, mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

I saw The Language of Flowers at a bookshop, spontaneously bought and read it right away. After all the books I read during the last weeks (Sebald, Josipovici and Morante – all upcoming reviews) I felt like reading something “heartbreaking and redemptive” as the book cover states.

Victoria is 18 years old and finally relieved from the foster-care system she has been living in since she was born. Her only chance at adoption went by when she was 10 years old, after that she spent most of her life in homes. She is aggressive and shy, wounded and mistrusting. With nowhere to go she decides to sleep in a public park in San Francisco. Flowers are her only passion, growing them, taking care of them as well as their meaning. She learned all about flowers from Elizabeth.

In chapters that alternate between then and now, we find out who this mysterious Elizabeth was. Elizabeth was the owner of a vineyard. She knew everything about the language of flowers as it was used by the Victorians. I don’t want to spoil this novel, and will only tell you that Elizabeth was Victoria’s only hope to be adopted but a tragic event prevented it.

The Victoria of today soon discovers that even though she can live in the open, she still needs money for food. She is lucky and can convince the local florist of her talent with flowers. Renata hires her, amazed that this wild-looking, unkempt girl has such a talent. While buying flowers at the flower market they meet Grant. Victoria has never been in love and doesn’t want anyone to come close. He is clearly interested but she fights off his advances at first. His knowledge about flowers and, surprisingly, also about their language, helps Victoria to open up. It is a coincidence, but not a too far-fetched one, that Grant turns out to be Elizabeth’s nephew.

As I said, this book has a redemptive ending but the road that leads there is more than bumpy. It’s not a romance but love plays an important role. It’s more the story of a young woman who has been too deeply wounded to trust, a novel about mothers and motherhood and of course about flowers. There was one part in it, involving birth and nursing that is very powerful, to say the least.

Victoria’s gift is so considerable that she will start her own business. Not only does she know about the meaning of flowers, she is capable of arranging them in a way that they affect someone’s life. A person looking for a relationship will find a partner thanks to Victoria’s flowers.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh created a flower dictionary and included it at the end of the book. She went trough many Victorian books, comparing the meanings. Often there was more than one meaning for a flower, occasionally they were even contradicting. She decided what she thought works best. She also added flowers that are more common nowadays and left out those that cannot be found anymore.

The Language of Flowers reminded me a bit of The Mistress of Spices but it is far better. It has been compared to White Oleander which I loved but I didn’t think they had anything in common.

I must admit I wasn’t exactly the right reader for this. It’s hard to describe what problem I had with it. There were moments when I really liked it and others where I was thinking it felt artificial.

One thing  is for sure, the right reader will absolutely adore this book. The combination of the meaning of flowers, a wounded woman who struggles to find happiness and extremely graphic descriptions of giving birth and nursing is quite different.