Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Fiction Review: The Language of Flowers

I recently read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh for my neighborhood book group, and it was one of those books that I never would have read on my own but was so glad that I did. It’s a compelling, moving novel about a young woman who grew up in the foster care system and is trying to learn how to survive out on her own. Her knowledge of flowers and their meanings (from Victorian times) saves her life, both figuratively and quite literally.

As the novel opens, Victoria is turning 18 and officially “aging out” of the foster care system in San Francisco. Her social worker picks her up from her latest group home (with her one cardboard box of possessions) and takes her to a transitional home, where she has just three months to find a job and become self-sufficient. Victoria was abandoned by her mother at birth and has been shuffled from one foster family to another for her entire childhood. As a result of the continual abandonment and lack of love, Victoria doesn’t know how to connect with people. Labeled a problem child early on, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as she came to believe that she was worthless, unloved, and unlovable.

Right from the start, the reader has hints that there was one person in her past who did love Victoria, a woman named Elizabeth with whom she bonded, but it is apparent that something horrible happened to break that bond. With her lack of self-confidence and no sense at all of self-worth, Victoria is lost out in the world by herself and paralyzed by doubts and fear. She is kicked out of the transitional home after three months and ends up sleeping in the park and wandering the city searching for scraps of food. She is drawn to a local flower shop, where her unique knowledge of the meaning of flowers gets her a job and starts her down a rocky path of making a life for herself.

The chapters alternate between the present and the past, where Victoria first met the only person who ever had any positive impact on her life. As readers, we know there is some terrible secret hidden in her past and that her idyllic time back when she was 10 somehow ended in tragedy. Those secrets are slowly revealed as the past and the present come together, and Victoria struggles to learn how to connect with someone and build a life for herself.

Everyone in our book group enjoyed this engrossing novel, and we had plenty to discuss. Like me, some of our members would not have read it on our own because the topic – the language of flowers – didn’t seem all that interesting to us. But the real topics here are foster care, love, life, survival, and rebirth. While Victoria’s actions are sometimes frustrating as she continually thwarts her own chances for success, the author provides enough detail of her past history that you can understand why she is acting this way, even if you don’t agree with it. It’s a compelling story filled with emotional highs and lows and is highly recommended, even if you aren’t interested in flowers. And if you are interested, there is a glossary in the back of different varieties of flowers and their meanings.

308 pages, Ballantine Books

P.S. If you are interested in a true-life story of surviving (and overcoming) the foster care system, I highly recommend Ashley Rhodes-Courter's YA memoir, Three Little Words.

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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible.


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  1. This was a fabulous book. I loved it, and reviewed it not too long ago. Like you, I would have not picked it up on my own. I read it with a book club. I agree, there is lots to discuss with this book; a good book club choice.

  2. Liked this one a lot - the audio was good.