oliviasbooks's Reviews > The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
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Dec 03, 13

bookshelves: contemporary_fiction, e-version, family-grief-or-other-disasters, debut, adult-fiction
Recommended to oliviasbooks by: Nomes
Recommended for: those who liked "Raw Blue" by Kirsty Eagar
Read from November 17 to 20, 2011, read count: 1

The elegantly worded The Language of Flowers made me invest quite a lot during the first chapters, but gambled all my affection away later on. I will try to explain how this unceremonious drop around the middle of the story came to pass after introducing Victoria to you.

There is nothing victorious about Victoria apart from the fact that she survived to see her eighteen's birthday. Even social worker Meredith sees her only as a failure she personally doesn't deserve. A dark blotch on her white sheet of professional accomplishments: For Victoria has been a foundling baby, abandoned at an age that usually makes finding families willing to adopt an easy task. But somehow Victoria left and was made to leave foster family after foster family, fought in between for affection, food and physical integrity among cruel or indifferent caretakers and fellow foster kids as emotionally messed up and adapted to the loveless situations of their short lives as herself, botched up her last and only chance at a permanent solution at the age of eleven, drove Meredith crazy for the remaining seven years by countless court trials and group home fights and now, on her eighteen's birthday, the day the State of California finally rids itself from the responsibily of its parentless ward's well-being, she does not react as frightened and subdued as Meredith wished her to. On the contrary: She does not use her final three months time in the transition home to hunt for a job and find a room. She spends her days stealing flowers from communal flower beds and people's gardens to plant them in milk cartons, unconcerned about flooding and molding the carpet. On the day of her eviction into unassisted adulthood Victoria takes her flowers and moves into the concealed shrubbery of the town's recreactional area. Hunger and cold do not drive her into wanting to change her homeless lifestyle, but fear of physical abuse does, when drunk men invade her fragile sanctuary at night. Though paperless she persuades an overworked Russian florist Renata to take her on as a weekend assistant by demonstrationg her astonishing knowledge about flowers and her extraordinary skill at creating bouquets. So far so good.

Now you would think you will see the friendship between Victoria and her new boss grow and grow and grow, some relapses to occur, love to enter her life in small, hesitant steps … Yes, I agree, that would maybe mean walking the edge of tear-jerker-like soppy, drenched in the sickly smell of forget-me-nots and red roses. But I did not expect the story to rely so heavily on flashbacks to Victoria's time on Elizabeth's vine-yard - which triggered her all-consuming obsession about the meaning each decorative plant used to have in European culture – that climax in revealing the outrageous reason for the planned adoption to go amiss (view spoiler) and for Victoria to go finally - and understandably - feral.

My initially strong connection to Victoria slowly began to unravel, when she starts to get to know / date Grant, a young flower-farm owner she fleetingly knows from her childhood. I understood her reserve, her mistrust, her outstretched feelers. But I resented her self-centered, cat-and-mouse-style behavior (view spoiler). A friend of mine said Diffenbaugh's style reminded him a lot of the novels by Sarah Addison Allen. I do understand, because the works of both contain dark pasts and the woven-in magic of fruits or flowers or gardens. My association goes into a different direction, though: The heroine Victoria and her actions reminded me the most of is Carly from Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar. If you liked the romance in that novel, you might enjoy Victoria's and Grant's love-story as well.

The last thread between Victoria and me was torn when she declines everyone's help (view spoiler), but selfishly makes the persons around her maintain, support, sacrifice, worry, plan and work for her even more than if she had accepted being advised and assisted right in the beginning. Why does she stop working? (view spoiler) She could have managed. And why does she start her own and illegal wedding flowers business – a bitter competition to her boss' business when she could have just asked Renata to integrate her unique service into her shop's palette for a more generous salary? Since she was still using Renata's wholesale card to buy the flowers she needed, Renata could have easily done her in by simply reporting her to the authorities. (view spoiler)

I need to stress that I actually have thought maybe it's me, maybe I have just not enough stomach lining and empathy for the broken mind of someone with a devastating childhood. The author information at the end of the book mentions that Vanessa Diffenbaugh has personal first-hand experience with raising foster kids. Apparently she gave home to one or more. After reading the book I do not question that at all. But when I compare my reading experience of The Language of Flowers to that of other stories featuring difficult or hard-to-like main characters, I am sure that a truely skillful author can make me feel and ache and root for any protagonist, no matter how strange or evil. I have just finished reading Froi of the Exiles (yes, it is Fantasy, I know). Fact is, when I was reading the volume preceeding it, I would have never guessed Melina Marchetta would get me to like him. Now I love him fiercely. Maybe his personal growth is fantastical, unrealistic, but maybe it is simply magic. The kind of magic only the best authors can evoke in a reader's mind.

Because of that believe I do not feel any reservations to rate the second half of this book only with two stars in contrast to my four star expectation in the beginning.

Completely off-track, but on my mind: If you like flower-shop-based plots, you might perhaps enjoy the Japanese movie Oto-na-ri. It is about a lonely thirty-something florist and a celebrity photographer, who dreams of shooting Canadian landscapes, living wall-to-wall in an apartment building without meeting each other. It is sad and funny and bittersweet. I loved it.

A lot of thanks go to Netgalley and to the publisher, Random House, for giving me access to an electronic review copy in exchange for this honest review.
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Reading Progress

25.0% "So far it's lovely. Pinches my heart."
60.0% "O, no, Elizabeth, how could you."
93.0% "I don't like the main character anymore. Rating eill turn out to be a very tricky thing."

Comments (showing 1-50 of 51) (51 new)

Nomes olivia ~ this review is so detailed. i loved reading it all (though my own memory of events in this book have faded somewhat...)

i felt angry towards elizabeth as well. perhaps she was so hurting she couldnt actually see just how much it all impacted on victoria? i cant believe all those years that went to waste.

also when (view spoiler)

oliviasbooks Thank you, Nomes. I cannot believe how often I had to click on "edit", because there is always a typo or grammatical mistake more that slipped my attention before. Grrrr ....

Amy (Turn the Page) Love your review - perfectly sums up my feelings. (I don't know how you felt about Raw Blue but I also disliked that novel). Melina Marchetta is so far one of the few authors who can make me care deeply about what should be an unlikeable character. I just couldn't like Victoria and the novel got felt more contrived as it went on. I started of liking it a lot though.

oliviasbooks Thank you, Amy! I wouldn't say that I did not like "Raw Blue". But mainly I was disappointed, because of my high expectations and the lack of hope and warmth.

message 5: by Robin (new)

Robin Olivia, Thank you for a beautifully crafted and lucid review. I agree that it was difficult to "bond" with Victoria, but it may have been for poetic emphasis - often a literary gamble.

Sherrie Although I am not nearly as eloquent as you, I totally agree with your review. I was left with a bad taste about Victoria and your description of "cat-and-mouse" is spot on. Glad to know I'm not the only one!

oliviasbooks Thank you very much, Robin and Sherrie!

Recently I've read the young adult novel Pan's Whisper by Sue Lawson. And although foster teen Pandora, too, had her very difficult sides, I was feeling and rooting for her always. Recommended.

Miriam When I finished the book, I was like "WTF" over a lot of things. Victoria stopped being a relate-able character for me as well with Grant, the pregnancy and subsequent abandonment of her child. I believe this story could've been much much more than what it was.

Stephanie The character created was true to a child with attachment disorder http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachme... and was very realistic to me as I work with children and young adults who suffer beacause the adults in their lives were unable to prepare them for the world appropriately. The anger and the hurt they experienced did not prepare them for normal relationships and the lessons we are taught by our parents do not fully exist. Children like Victoria are isolating and insulating and behave in very strange ways for those of us who are emotionally better adjusted. Victoria's only connection to another person was to Elizabeth and that relationship ended in such a tragic way, she could not move forward. I thought it was a very realistic book and could be the story of many of my students, present and past. I found it a book of hope, hope that the cycle of abuse and neglect could stop. Hope that with a glimmer of unconditional love, a person could be complete.

oliviasbooks That might certainly be true, Stephanie. But maybe you connected with the heroine because of your personal experience. But as I am concerned the thread between me and Victoria slowly ripped. And in my opinion a really, really good narrator does not allow that to happen. But everyone reacts differently. Some rather "normal" heroines are irritating to me and kick-ass-great to others and vice versa. And: When I rate 3 stars I do mean it: I enjoyed that book all in all.

Miriam I met the author, she's in the picture with me, had my book signed and listened to her talk about the inspiration for this book.... I still feel the same as before. I did not "get" Lizbeth Salandar (girl with dragon tattoo) until book 2, perhaps a book 2 is what we need here. I too enjoyed the book all in all.

oliviasbooks Thank you, Miriam! I don't think I would read a second volume if there was one, but I certainly would try another story by the author.

message 13: by Dena (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dena Mehling I finished this book this morning and I loved your review. I really wnjoyed the first half of the book but lost empathy for the character as the book went on. You perfectly summed up why.

oliviasbooks Thaaank you, Dena. That means a lot to me.

message 15: by oliviasbooks (last edited Jun 11, 2012 11:04PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

oliviasbooks No, I did not wish for a soppy fairy-tale, really. Yet I believe the line between reality-like-but-enjoyable and documentary-like-realistic-and-raw is really fine. For a lot of readers stories can remain bleak and the characters can stay unaccessible or mysterious or whatever they were at the beginning. I read for fun. And my idea of a great time with a book includes that I somehow bond with the main character - preferably not only at the beginning, but also around the end. But that is only my very personal requirement for a 5-star-book. For others authentism paired with beautiful writing is enough. Some even crave the uncertainty or instability, the feeling that they never will be able to really see through the eyes of someone else. The book might be perfect for them. But not for me. Plus I have to stress that my ratings always represent my subjective pleasure, not a book's quality in general.

Miriam Hey Olivia. I always find posts wherein people resort to trying to prove their opinion is more worthy than someone else's by stating their job, an experience from their life, etc., AND then resorting to the use of insults to further make their point, to be nothing more than a post and opinion worthy of nothing more than a dismissal.

I think we each "take away" something that is entirely personal and subjective and regardless of whether your opinion is in the majority or minority, no opinion is of greater importance over another.

It amazes me when I see these posts that provide nothing of value to the discussion of the book. I wonder what that is about? Anywho, keep on providing relative book reviews.

message 17: by oliviasbooks (last edited Jun 12, 2012 07:42AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

oliviasbooks Thank you, Miriam. I reread my review to double-check today, but I see that I DID mention that I do not question the author's expertise in the field. Maybe statements like that get lost in the overall impression my review creates because of its length.
As far as my reviewing style as such is concerned I can say that subjective reviews - that are declared as being subjective - are the only ones I know to write (and the only ones that make me consider reading books I had overlooked). I think that is okay and I am happy to hear that they are helpful. I just have to keep everyone aware of the fact that I am voicing my opinion instead being a neutral commentator.

Lauren Farmer Great review. I feel the author got the foster care scenarios spot on, it was the happily ever after end that I just couldn't grasp. Loved the book until the relationship with Grant, it was a slow decline from there.

oliviasbooks Thank you Lauren! I loved the beginning, too.

Cheri I agree with Stephanie's comment - I felt Victoria's pain and continued to understand her behavior, even though it was frustrating and sad to see her and everyone else involved so slow in growing and coming together - it was a little difficult for me to believe that anyone as unconditionally loving, patient and faithful Grant could actually exist, but I like to think there are people who are exactly like that. It gives me hope for humanity. Also, as I remember the story, didn't Renata fire Victoria because she was not willing to be dishonest with Grant about Victoria's whereabouts? Victoria had to make a living and she did send many customers to Renata's shop. I loved the book.

Cheri I had tried to change some text in the comment before posting it, but wasn't able to do that for some reason - in the sentence about Grant it should read "and faithful as Grant"

oliviasbooks Maybe you are a more sensitive person than I am. Who knows? But hope for humanity is always a good feeling to evoke. I am happy for you to have gotten that vibe. When I get it, I usually rate the responsible book high, too.

Kathleen Crowell can't put my finger on it, but I had the same experience when I went back to read after hitting the halfway mark. Something just seemed different to me and I didn't love it anymore...

oliviasbooks Good to know it's not just me.

Maria I had the same experience of not understanding why Victoria's character suddenly changes mid-novel. It's not easily explained as as "she is afraid, based on her past." In fact, I found myself growing angry that she had reverted to near-animalistic instincts of self preservation rather than choosing to be a human being (that's how visceral my reaction was to her selfish behavior).

oliviasbooks Thank you, Maria!

message 27: by Casey (new)

Casey I'm a little late to this conversation, but, I just finished this book - for my book discussion group - and I had a very hard time with Victoria. I figured it was because I just couldn't figure her out, since I had a hard time emphasizing with her circumstances & experiences. But she just didn't seem to want anyone to help her, even though they hung in there. I kept thinking what is it about her that people hang on to her and don't give up even when she constantly pulls away and sometimes just plain dissapears? I just didn't get it. And by the end, I only kinda half heartedly cared about her/Grant/Hazel/Elizabeth - yeah, they'r trying to make some kind of 'family' out of what they 'have' but,. . .ah, I just don't know. Maybe it's me? But I felt bad about not caring. It was all very frustrating.

Maria I don't think you need to care about not caring, Casey. The character was written that way.

message 29: by Casey (new)

Casey Thanks Maria. :)

message 30: by Bernadine (new) - added it

Bernadine I got to the point that her melodrama bores me..and the use of eating so much to me, was trite I'm disappointed in the book..like it most learning about the meaning of flowers

Julie I liked your review more than the book! I came away feeling the same as you -or at least I think it's the same. Trying not to get tired of Victoria and her tiresome ways leaves me feeling like I'm the one who's lacking empathy. Maybe I am.

oliviasbooks Thank you, Julie!

I think I've deleted the wrong comment without wanting to. Sorry.

Elaine Your review captures my comments completely.

oliviasbooks Wonderful. That makes me happy!

message 35: by Amy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Amy I AGREE. Not really sure why everyone raved about this book!?!??!

message 36: by Jan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jan I'm glad to have company in this evaluation of the book. First half: I was there! Second half: I skimmed with growing disgust and dismay. Victoria and Elizabeth do not stay true to character, and that causes me to lose my willing suspension of disbelief.

oliviasbooks I am glad, too, when I see that others share my problems with a book and I am not the only one who sees them. So: Thanks for liking and commenting, Jan!

Sally Love this review. I haven't finished the book yet and I s, already struggling with the same things. At first I wasn't sure I would like it and then it became very intriguing. And now.......I have like 70 pages left and I want to throw it out the window. I like books with strong female leads but I hate it when the author makes them into a martyr. I definitely would not have chosen this book on my own.

oliviasbooks Thank you, Sally! Sometimes my opinion on books is so far off from the general one. That makes it doubly nice to see that I can feel in synchrony with other readers, too.

Nancy I felt the exact same way!!!!!!!!!!!!

Stephanie Nancy wrote: "I felt the exact same way!!!!!!!!!!!!"

So Nancy, you gave it 5 stars, so did you like it? My bookclub just reviewed it and they all loved it but not sure the original poster loved it....I did but not sure that Olivia did.....but it sounds like you liked it?! Just curious.....

Nancy Hi, yes and no... I gave it 5 stars but prob should have given it only 4 stars I liked it and WANTED to LOVE it but couldn't for the most of the same reasons that the original reviewer said... yet it's summer and I was compelled to finish it to see if it regained it's original charm... it didn't but still it was a good book and I was better off for having read it so hence the 5 stars but it wasn't great which it started out to be if that makes any sense..

oliviasbooks Rating seems to be always a rather subjective thing. Many factors play a role. Therefore it's good we can elaborate via review. Thanks for the likes and the comments, b.t.w.!

Christine Perfect review!

oliviasbooks Thanks!!!!

oliviasbooks How did this review land on my update feed today? I did not tamper with it at all? Goodreads, you are making me uncomfortable.

Janice I think that people act stupid and spoiled and selfish. That is why I continued my suspension of reality.

message 48: by Lynn (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lynn Ness I loved it..as a social worker, I am well acquainted with self sabotage with my clients and a lack of trust in relationships...although frustrating...it is real.

Trisha Why did she have to go into such minute detail with the baby? I've had three kids and if she can't ask for help I don't need to know blow by blow minute of her troubles . I wanted more of the flowers, thus the title....

Anisa Long That's precisely how I felt: the author did not do enough to keep me rooting for Victoria. I disliked her from beginning to end.

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