The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Pub Date: August 23, 2011
Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut novel is storytelling with ease. The writing is clear, but what is most beautiful to discover in this book is indeed the language of flowers and their meaning as originally dated back to the Victorian era. The writing is neither lyrical, nor poetic as its subject matter of flowers, their beauty or their bloom, but direct in a clear style of its author and personality of the book’s main character, Victoria Jones.
She is sufficiently plain as her name, if only for her dire circumstances due to the nature of her birth and upbringing. In this, she is quite extraordinary, having no choice, but to be orphaned, having to grow up for most of her childhood in foster homes as a child belonging to the state of California and transplanted from home to home until her eighteenth birthday by Meredith Combs, her disgruntled and exasperated social worker.
The number of times the main character has moved from placement to placement does not speak as harshly to her flaws as it does to the abuse and often the neglect by the foster care system that inhibits her. This regular pattern of neglect and nomadic instability proves to harden Victoria Jones against trust, love, and affection in relationships to the point of disliking physical touch. Ironically, Victoria’s hardness, which is a result of her feelings of inadequacy and failure as a child who is both unwanted and unloved, is a later source of her strength and survival as an adult.
The novel is primarily about the relationship of motherhood in its varying forms as depicted in the characters that surround Victoria Jones. From Elizabeth Anderson’s maternal love for Victoria as a child, Grant Hasting’s paternal love for his mentally ill mother, Catherine, Renata’s distant, yet protective professionalism, Mother Ruby’s over-saturated nurturing, Victoria’s indirect maternal instinct towards her lovesick clients searching for messages and answers in the flowers they seek, and her overwhelming love, yet quick incapacity to care for her newborn infant. This and the yearning for love, a fierce competition for it against the restraints of a character who is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with its social nuances, and the need for reconciliation with the past, is what this book is about.
Though the story moves with ease to convince you of its interesting plot and curiosity enough to advocate for the main character, the characters seemed somewhat unbelievable in their polarity. They are to me what perhaps a reader wishes a character to be, rather than a true reflection of what people are really like. I don’t know, perhaps I am too harsh in judging the cold and emotionally inept girl who is naturally drawn to flowers or the exaggerated characters who are her counterparts.
Though, Renata of Bloom, deems herself non-nurturing, she is over generous with her business and her money in the care and welfare of the main character.
Elizabeth Anderson, a childless woman is overly patient with a self-indulgent, prickly girl and forgives past wrongs in the cruelty of vengeful, false accusations, and the burning of a vineyard.
Grant Hastings is wonderfully kind and mature for a young man merely in his twenties with little or no resentment towards the secret of Victoria’s past, her inability for commitment, and her last form of abandonment. Any other man perhaps would be livid. Instead Grant cooks her a succulent meal of chicken upon her return.
Aside from these sometimes over-idealistic characters, the novel moves between past and present to show Victoria Jones’ life education in horticulture and survival, her self-taught ability to take photographs and create a flower dictionary, and in that, create for herself her own meaning in the ways to cope with and understand her world.
The novel not only inspired me to consider studying horticulture for my own search of meaning behind the beauty of nature and flowers, but also allows its readers to recognize the gaps sometimes found in a state-run foster care system that needs be addressed in order for more young children to thrive in self-confidence, family life, and a true sense of belonging.
Though meaning and “[t]he language of flowers is [deemed] nonnegotiable…” (p.63) by Elizabeth Anderson – the main character, Victoria Jones, is able to negotiate her own terms of language, love, acceptance, survival, and growth.
After reading the book, I lay down my own bouquet of Laburnum, White Jasmine, and Agrimony.