The brilliance of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel The Language of Flowers lies in its countless conflicting qualities: it is both heart-warming and heart-breaking, uplifting and sorrowful, fast-paced and meticulously developed, based on harsh reality and idealized fiction. Though clearly a best-case-scenario for a child raised in the foster care system, this novel nevertheless contains the unfortunate and horrible truth of what children like Victoria, the protagonist, experience every day. Such a thoughtful balance of grit and glamour permeates The Language of Flowers, creating a remarkable book that I couldn’t help but fly through in just over a single day.
From the first page I was immediately struck with how beauty and fluidity of Diffenbaugh’s writing style. Not only is she an excellent writer, but it soon became clear that she is also a skillful storyteller in the way that she weaves numerous threads together into one cohesive narrative. I loved the alternating perspectives of Victoria as a child and as an adult. Though this duality can seem unnecessary in some novels, it is an integral and essential element of this multilayered story. Not only does it add depth to the plot, but it also helps the reader understand why Victoria behaves the way she does as an adult. Without the knowledge of her childhood, I probably would have disliked Victoria because I wouldn’t have been able to understand where she was coming from and how her mind worked.
In this way, Victoria herself is another contrasting duality: she is endless frustrating to both the reader and the rest of the characters in the novel, yet I couldn’t help but hope that everything would work out for her. Though her intentions were good and she did the best she could given her circumstances, the trauma of growing up in foster care and group homes made it difficult for her to fully open up to and trust other people. More than anything Victoria is a remarkably human character: she is flawed and fickle and fascinating in ways that we can all relate to at some level.
Though the narrative’s focus is primarily on Victoria, many of the other characters also experience significant growth and development as well. We come to understand the meaning behind the solitude of Elizabeth, Grant, and Renata, all of whom have separated themselves from other in some capacity for various reasons. It is through the stories of these characters’ pasts that Victoria realizes that she is not the only one who as so-called inner demons that she hides from everyone around her. I particularly enjoyed learning more about Grant’s past growing up with Elizabeth’s sister, Catherine. His alternative perspective to Victoria’s childhood was very valuable in deciphering what was true and what may have been exaggerated through her nostalgic lens of memory.
What I find remarkable about The Language of Flower is that the plot is as richly developed and nuanced as the characters. The back-and-forth nature of Victoria’s two perspectives prevents the pacing of the book from dragging, as does the plethora of unexpected plot twists that occur in both time frames. Though some reveals were ultimately predictable, the road that Victoria took to get there was always a surprise. It’s rare to find a book whose characters and plot line are equally engrossing, yet Diffenbaugh has somehow managed to execute this seamlessly.
However, compared with the tumultuous plot of the rest of the novel the ending felt too put together and perfectly wrapped up, almost as though the author forced all of the loose ends into a perfectly shaped bow. The ending lacked the nuanced, bittersweet depth that had characterized the story up until that point, leaving me with an anticlimactic taste in my mouth.
Of course, I couldn’t write a review of this book without mentioning the significance of the title. The language of flowers itself is like an added bonus to this already excellent novel. The Victorian meanings associated with various flowers are woven into the story in clever and unexpected ways, contributing not only to the plot but to the expression of the characters’ personalities and feelings as well. The incorporation of these meanings never feels forced; Victoria’s intense passion for the language of flowers feels like enough to justify the mention of any and all plants. There is also a glossary in the back of the book that contains these meanings, which was fun to peruse afterwards. (I learned that the meaning of “holly” is “foresight,” which is strangely applicable to my personality in general because I tend to focus on making plans and being prepared.)
Overall, Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers is a unique novel of unlikely pairs of opposites, human nature, and lots of flowers. Whether you’re interested in reading more about foster children, florists, family dynamics, or friendship, this is an absolute must read.
My Rating: :0) :0) :0) :0) 4 out of 5
Would I recommend it to a friend?: Definitely! The reason read this book in the first place was because someone I work with recommended it to me, and I cannot wait to pass along the glowing recommendation to someone else!
Have you ever read this novel before? What are your thoughts on it? Would you recommend any of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s other books? Let me know in the comments section below!