December 23, 2012

The Language of Flowers: A Panoramic Review (Adult/New Adult)

"A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating 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.

Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.
" (from Goodreads)
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

My reaction: I felt really conflicted about this book. I found the main character very difficult to relate to and understand, as she's come from a background that's so different from mine. Having been switched from foster home to foster home and lacking stability in her life, Victoria is very distrusting of everybody. She's aloof, holding herself distant from most people; she appreciates her solitude and doesn't like to let others in very often. (In fact, apparently when she was younger she would throw up when touched by strangers!) 

There were so many times that I wanted to shake Victoria and make her see reason, because she kept thrusting away everyone who cared for her. It's frustrating because it takes so long for her to realize the mistakes that she's making. It seems like she's kind of scared of herself, and the damage she could cause to others; she doesn't trust anybody else, but she doesn't trust herself either.

So to be perfectly honest, I didn't like Victoria that much through most of it. Towards the end, we see a change in her that is rewarding (spoilers, highlight to read: when she finally allows herself to love and be loved, putting family first and giving Grant and her daughter another chance), but it's almost too little, too late. I don't think it quite makes up for the cloud that overshadows most of the book, and the transition itself is a little fast.

The dual narrative works very well here; it's interesting to see the present 18/19-year-old Victoria and then begin to understand how she became that girl through the chapters set in the past. They dovetail nicely together, each of them contributing to the reader's understanding of the same mystery. 

While it was good to see Victoria's business grow and watch her stand on her feet as a businesswoman, I thought that part of book was on the less believable side of things. Would people really care so much about the meanings of flowers? It's a gimmick that could go over well with a certain crowd, I suppose. The flowers angle didn't do that much for me, but it provides something to make the story stand out a bit more.

Best aspect: The universal themes tackled here. There's a lot in this story about guilt, pride, misunderstandings, regret, forgiveness, and being able to say you're sorry. Maybe even a bit of redemption, and certainly a lot about love not only romantic, but also familial (in particular, maternal), and even just caring. It's very much a story of character growth and coming to understand yourself, and it also highlights how drastically things in the past can affect the present.  
If I could change something... I would have liked to have seen more of Catherine. I feel like we don't really get to understand her that well because we only see her through Elizabeth's and Grant's eyes.

I also could have done with a little more romance in the Victoria-Grant relationship. I understand that a traditionally "romantic" relationship probably wouldn't work for Victoria because of her unusual interactions with people, and I think that Grant understood her better than a lot of others, and gave her space. But I wanted more resolution to their storyline (spoilers: we see from Victoria's perspective how she thinks things will play out in the future, but we aren't given any scenes of promises or declarations). 

A Tapestry of Words The "New Adult" aspect: The past narrative matches Victoria's voice to her age quite well, but the present narrative was a little less consistent. At first her voice seemed age-appropriate, but as the book went on, I felt like her voice got a lot more mature (less like age 19 and more like early 20s). However, it's true that she has to deal with some very adult situations (spoiler: becoming a mom).
If you haven't read it: don't go into this one lightly. It's a thought-provoking, serious, heartfelt story, and probably just about everyone can learn something from it. It's sad in a haunting sort of way, though, so be prepared for the sober tone.

If you have read it: more than one aspect of this book reminded me of The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton — anyone else get that vibe?

Just one more thing I want to mention: this book contains the most horrifying depiction of motherhood I think I've ever read. If I was going just by this book's portrayal, I don't think I'd ever want to have kids. Spoilers: I'm thinking of the scenes where she's trying to breastfeed and the baby won't be satisfied. Her breasts bleed, and she becomes so, so desperate for the baby to stop sucking. Her frustration and irritation and panic and fear that she's not doing it right and that she can't be a mother are communicated very viscerally to the reader. Also, she's not a very competent mother — I was astounded when she left her baby alone more than once! I know she's having a rough time, but you don't do that with a baby. It's difficult to watch as she struggles to be a mom and then gives her child to the dad without even telling him that it's his daughter.

Wiping my bloody hands on my pants, I grabbed the spoon and ran toward the house, tripping and falling and picking myself up without ever letting go of my prize. I bounded up the steps, pounding the heavy metal spoon against the wooden door relentlessly. The lock turned, and Elizabeth stood before me.

For just a moment we looked at each other in silence — two pairs of wide, unblinking eyes — then I launched the spoon into the house with as much strength as I could gather in my thin arm. I aimed for the window over the kitchen sink. The spoon flew just inches past Elizabeth's ear, arched high toward the ceiling, and bounced off the window before clattering into the porcelain sink. One of the small blue bottles teetered on the edge of the windowsill before it fell and shattered.

"There's your spoon," I said. 

Final verdict: 4 shooting stars. 

Note: This book contains some mature (including sexual) content.

This book counts towards my goal for the "New Adult" reading challenge.

1 comment:

  1. This book has been so popular at my library and I never really knew what it was about except for the foster care aspect. Sounds like some heavy yet worthwhile reading.


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