Tuesday, August 14, 2012

290 (2012 #35). The Language of Flowers

by Vanessa Diffenbaugh,
read by Tara Sands

Victoria Jones is a ward of the state who's just turned 18 and aged out of the foster care system.  After a number of unsuccessful placements, she's spent the previous eight years in a succession of group homes.  Abandoned as an infant, she is uncertain even of her birth date. Suffering from attachment disorder, she is mistrustful, aloof, at times irresponsible, and hates to be touched.  Her case worker, Meredith, describes her this way: "Detached.  Quick-tempered. Tight-lipped.  Unrepentant." (page 13)

Victoria moves into a halfway house in San Francisco, and has three months rent-free to find a job.  Instead, Victoria spends that time cultivating a garden in her room and transplanting it to a public park, where she lives a while when she is homeless after being evicted.

The only way Victoria is able to truly communicate is through flowers.  She's a natural arranging them, and manages to land a job with a local florist.  Soon, customers seek her out, because she understands the old Victorian “language of flowers,” and can devise bouquets and centerpieces that convey a message.

Victoria learned this language from Elizabeth, the only foster mother she had that seemed to understand her.  Elizabeth is a single woman who owns a vineyard and is estranged from her sister, who owns the flower farm next door.  Elizabeth and Victoria build a relationship – then something goes terribly wrong.

The adult Victoria finds a young man at the flower market who also understands the language of flowers, and, through their burgeoning relationship, she must confront the secrets in her past.

Diffenbaugh alternates chapters narrated by the present-day Victoria with ones narrated by her nine-to-ten-year-old self, living with Elizabeth.  This technique heightens suspense and builds the reader’s understanding of Victoria’s flawed character. 

Readers will find themselves rooting for Victoria and the supportive people in her life (all well-developed too).  I couldn't help but like Renata, the florist who gives Victoria a job; and Renata's sister Natalya (Victoria's landlord) and mother Ruby (a midwife), as well as Marlena (Victoria's assistant).  And I'd love to read more about Elizabeth.  Elizabeth's nephew, Grant, was the only character who seemed a little too good to be real.

Debut author Vanessa Diffenbaugh draws on her experiences as a foster mother for this story.  In an interview, she says, "One young woman in particular...was fiery and focused and distrusting and unpredictable in a manner similar to Victoria.  Her history was intense: a number on her birth certificate where a name should have been; more foster homes than she could count.  Still, she was resilient, beautiful, smart, and funny.  We loved her completely, and she did her best to sabotage it, over and over again.  To this day my husband and I regret that we couldn’t find a way to connect with her and become the stable parents she deserved."  (I think this is the "Megan" Diffenbaugh refers to in her acknowledgements at the end of the print book.)   Diffenbaugh has founded the nonprofit Camellia Network to support youth aging out of foster care. 

A bonus is an eight-page dictionary of flower meanings at the end of the print copy of the book. Like Victoria, Diffenbaugh constructed her dictionary by resolving the often-conflicting meanings in multiple dictionaries, including the 1884 Kate Greenaway's Language of Flowers.

A tale of heartbreak, forgiveness, and reconciliation, this book will be excellent for discussion groups and anyone with an interest in gardening or flowers.  I look forward to my group's upcoming discussion, and plan to bring some flowers to give messages to my fellow group members (probably freesias - they mean "lasting friendship," and they have a marvelous scent!).

I listened to the audio version of this book during my daily commute (40 minutes one-way), and it was all I could do to stay disciplined and not grab the print edition I'd also borrowed and read ahead.  I was so entranced with the story and eager to know what would happen next.  Actress Tara Sands does an outstanding job as the narrator.  She is youthful enough to be a realistic Victoria (both at ages 18-19 and 9-10), and she creates unique voices for the other characters.  She added much to my enjoyment of this book.

The Language of Flowers is a keeper - highly recommended

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and interlibrary loan respectively.]

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