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.

42 thoughts on “Vanessa Diffenbaugh: The Language of Flowers (2011)

  1. Thank you for your honest review. I have this book on my TBR pile and know I have a better idea of what to expect.

    • I’m very curious to see what you will think of it. Diffenbaugh has a message and she wants to help, she is the mother of an adopted child and tries to help young people to make the transition from forster-care to an independent life. I just think the “mission” interfered with the writing.

  2. I like the idea of two stories one now and one in the past and I ve read few things over years about what flowers meant years ago ,great review caroline ,all the best stu

    • Thanks, Stu. The two stories worked well, we really want to find out what happened in the past. I also liked the part about the language of flowers and that she included a dictionary, I think she has also already published a book on the language of flowers.

  3. I like the idea sort of, but it sounds a tad implausible. I have a dear friend struggling to manage two daughters she adopted out of foster care and it has been a long, hard battle against self-harming and aggressive behaviour. One girl is finding some redemption with the army cadets – more in the ballpark than flower arranging somehow! But then, I’m sure this real-life experience is coloring my viewpoint and other possibilities must be out there, too, for seriously damaged kids.

    • I think the changes Victoria undergoes were too abrupt for me. I’m still trying to find out what bothered me exactly. As a whole the story and the themes were appealing but there was something flawed in the way she told it, the voice sounded not right.

      • Yes I did. White Oleander is a hard act to follow, but I really liked Paint It Black. But I have another book suggestion for you (just what you need, right?) She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. Unless you’ve already read it.

        • I didn’t think it was hard to follow. I also like the movie. I love Michelle Pfeiffer. I’ll give Paint it Black a try then and thanks for the Wally Lamb suggestion. I think I’m lucky and have it on my TBR pile but sort of forgot about it…

          • I didn’t mean it was hard to follow (as in hard to understand). It’s a hard act to follow–I mean that the author will have a nigh impossible task to match or beat White Oleander. It’s probably the pinnacle of her work.

            I read White Oleander and She’s Come Undone in the same year. Both gripping.

            • Oh no, so sorry, I didn’t get you at all… The comment puzzled me and I started to doubt my memory of the book…
              This is actually the reason why I never read Paint in Black, I thought, White Oleander, that’s it… Everything after will just be slightly less good.

  4. I loved this book but I loved it in spite of itself, sort of. I didn’t like Victoria much although I could understand how she got to be the way she was, but she really drove me crazy at the end, with giving up so much that she shouldn’t have, in my opinion. Nevertheless, somehow I still loved the book!

    • I’m glad for your comment. I hope others read it and it helps balance out my review. I was sure that this is a book that will be loved because it isn’t bad at all. I think she ran away one time too often for me to think it plausible. The change towards the end was too abrupt. I felt Diffenbaugh wanted to get her point across too much. Im’ not so sure that everyone can change for the good. I’m not as optimistic as she may be.

  5. I had not heard of this book before–it sounds like it has an interesting premise–too bad it didn’t quite click. And you have finished History?! I was sidetracked last week by library books but it will be my companion this week! 🙂 I have a long way to go still.

    • I think you will see more reviews of this one as the premise is intriguing. It’s still worth to get it from the library if you get a chance.
      I haven’t finished History, but I didn’t want to add too much detail in the brackets. I have a feeling I’m reading it cosntantly and although I like it it’s a bit hard as I need to finish before next weekend. I’m too busy during the readalong week to be able to write reviews or anything else.
      Should there be a next year of this, I will post on the Sunday as well!

  6. Great review! This is now on my “gotta read it list”, thanks. I’ve just begun “A Complicated Kindness” by Miriam Toews … have you read it?

  7. White Oleander came to mind as soon as I started reading your review, Caroline. I’m sorry to hear it’s not as good. I do love flowers, though, and may give this a try.

    You might enjoy the book I’m reading now: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. A fictionalized version of Hemingway and his first wife Hadley living in 1920s Paris.

    • I was hoping that despite my personal reservations people would still pick it up as I know this is a book a lot of readers will really love. I could even relate to her to a certain extent. I will be ineterested to see what you think of it.
      I got The Paris Wife just didn’t have the time yet. I have high hopes for it. I lived exactly where Hemingway lived when I stayed in Paris. I loved A Moveable Feast.

  8. This sounds like it could be a great book. But I will put it on the back burner for now. Thanks for the honesty. I would have been attracted to the cover as well.

    • I only lived in France and Switzerland but had longer stays in others like the UK and Spain. But since Basel, the town I live in, is on the French/German border I am in Germany and France almost once a week. I always had friends from different countries and of course my family is quite diverse.

  9. I’m jealous. I wish I grew up in Europe. I would probably speak more than one language. Americans are odd about teaching children different languages. I don’t understand it.

    Basel…isn’t that where Roger Federer lives?

    • It depends on the country you would have been born in. UK and France and your chnaces at more than one language wouldn’t be too big. Yes Federer lives here and I see the house of film producer Arthur Cohn from my window. It’s not like Zürich or Geneva but we have our celebrities.

  10. I find it odd that in this globalized world that more nations don’t value learning more languages.

    I’m jealous of your celebrities. I’m an odd American. My favorite sports are tennis and soccer (or football). I’m heading to NYC in a few weeks for the US Open. I’m hoping to see Federer play.

    • You’ll get to see a lot of football in the UK! I think globalization is about getting rid of the cultural differences and sell the crappiest things to everyone.

  11. Something tells me I’d better avoid this one, so thanks for the honest review.
    The association of Victoria and flowers made me think of the Butchart Gardens in Victoria. It’s a wonderful place. It brought back nice memories, thanks.

    • I wouldn’t have recommended this one to you but I know a few people who would absolutely love it. Unfortunately I haven’t been to Victoria but I love gardens and flowers, obviously or I wouldn’t have bought the book.

  12. Hehehe I like the last line, the right person will love the book….from the description of the story…I am not that right person 😉

    The interpretation of the flower sounds really interesting, I was a bit intrigued…but when you mentioned a man who happened to be Elizabeth’s nephew showed up….I started thinking ‘Hmmm…this sound like a rom-com’. I can watch this kinda story but will never read it.

    • I definitely agree, you wouldn’t be the right person. It’s not too romancy at all. I just found Victoria annoying and her chnage towards the end abrupt but it had plenty of elements that I liked. I’ve never read anything about nursing before and was impressed.

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