Toni Whitmont review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

by |May 16, 2011

I have to confess I approached this book rather like approaching a blind date – everyone said it would be perfect for me but I just didn’t want to know in case I was disappointed.

The Language of Flowers, which will be published in September in 25 countries around the world, was one of the most coveted acquisitions of last year. The uncorrected proof arrived on my desk with oodles of marketing guff aimed at getting my attention. And there it sat for months, despite rather plaintive inquiries from the publisher as to whether it had made it to the top of my reading pile.

What I knew about the book was that it was quirky, ‘unputdownable’, and involved a woman who communicated with the world by singly out flowers for the meanings attributed to them by nineteenth century romantics. It sounded mawkish and saccharine to me. My bias came from my background – I have lived, studied and worked with horticulture, floriculture and garden design off on and on throughout my life and I didn’t want to waste my time with an asinine version of “roses are red, pansies are blue”.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

In other words, what would I know?

I have just spent the last 24 hours reading The Language of Flowers and it certainly is not asinine, mawkish or saccharine. In fact, this rather unusual novel about mother-daughter relationships, is enormously satisfying. Its characters are prickly and interesting, the premise is unusual and the resolution is nicely ambiguous.

The story involves Victoria Jones, a ward of the state of California, who was abandoned at birth and has no knowledge of any family. She is withdrawn, rather unlikable, misanthropic and a bit of a sociopath. The one constant in her life is her obsession with flowers, and in the meanings subscribed to their floral characteristics by the now largely forgotten romanticists of the nineteenth century. In some ways she is not unlike Lisbeth Salander aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, if our Lisbeth had been into flowers rather than hacking (although the stories are in no way similar). The tale is told through the rather disconnected voice of Victoria, both in the present time when she is a young woman and in the past, particularly at the age of ten.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Diffenbaugh cuts neatly between present and past gradually and skilfully building tension until we finally get to understand why Victoria is like she is. She writes with compassion and empathy and it is no surprise as the author drew on her own experience of being a foster mother in the conception of the story.

You need to be listening to Deborah Conway’s White Roses when you read this book.

You said forever and I took you at your word

White roses make a lie of everything I heard.

From the publisher

“I had a sudden urge to tell him about the flowers, to explain the hidden meanings. Honeysuckle for devotion. Azaleas for passion. Red roses for love.

I placed a rhododendron on the plywood counter before him. The cluster of purple blossoms was not yet open and the buds pointed in his direction, tightly coiled and toxic.

Beware”.

In The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s powerful first novel, a damaged young woman, Victoria Jones, who can only communicate through the Victorian language of flowers, goes from being homeless to a sought after wedding floral designer.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in conveying feelings like 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, Victoria has nowhere to go, and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. When her talent is discovered by a local florist, she discovers her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But it takes meeting a mysterious vendor at the flower market for her to realise what’s been missing in her own life, and as she starts to fall for him, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

The Language of Flowers is a heartbreaking and redemptive novel about the meaning of flowers, the meaning of family, and the meaning of love. Beautiful, original and utterly unforgettable, it is set to be the fiction sensation of 2011.

From me again:

Personally, I think the publisher has pitched the book too low with this rather sentimental description. There is way more to The Language of Flowers than is implied in the blurb. It is moving, rather lovely and reading it makes for a very worthwhile weekend.

To read an extract, go here.

To look at Victoria’s floral dictionary, go here.

The Language of Flowers can be pre-ordered here now.

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