Speaking in Petals
Author: Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Once upon a time, I worked for a florist. In all honesty, I still have a little PTSD from the experience so approached reading The Language of Flowers with some trepidation. It helped that it was selected for my book club by a fellow former employee who did not end up in the asylum after reading it, so I proceeded. With caution, but with reasonable certainty that it would not leave me permanently scarred. And happily, the flower and florist parts of the book are the ones I truly enjoyed.
The Language of Flowers is the story of Victoria Jones. Victoria was abandoned at birth and never adopted. She spent her childhood in foster and group homes and at the age of 18 is kicked from the system and sent out on her own. She has few skills of any kind – practical or social. That she ends up living in a park is absolutely no surprise. That she is able to get a job, however, very much is. But the only things she cares about are plants and flowers – something her florist employer is able to see through the angry grime in which she encases herself. It is in this one tiny niche that she excels – she’s a plant whisperer, fluent in the language of flowers.
But that is not the language to which the title of the book refers. Victoria is not only able to nurture, arrange and care for plants, she also knows all of the meanings that were attributed to various flowers during Victorian times when they were used as a form of communication, primarily between men and women living in a strictly controlled society. That elegant, romantic language is something she learned along the way and as we follow her on her road to true adulthood we come to understand where her passion for plants and flowers came from and how those experiences continue to shape every aspect of her existence.
The Language of Flowers is a beautiful book. It’s rich with the romantic notion of using flowers to express the deepest of emotions when mere words would never suffice or are simply too hard to say. It’s also a frustrating book with an unlikable main character that wallows in her own ill-defined misfortunes until I personally wanted to tell her to suck it up and grow a pair. It’s a conundrum of a book, both lush and romantic and spiteful and whiny.
The lush romance and the fascinating world of communication through flowers provide a formidable weapon with which to fight against the persistent stupidity of Victoria. It allows us to wade through her slowly unfolding backstory with some elegance and makes it a little easier to tolerate her stubborn refusal to accept responsibility for her life, her fate, and her past. Ironically, the flowers I feared are the very same ones that saved me from truly hating this angry, thoughtless, ill-tempered girl. She is supposed to have been damaged by the foster system, but the details of that damage are too sparse for me to be able to really forgive her for being a bitter, selfish young woman. Without her beautifully written devotion to her flowers, author Vanessa Diffenbaugh would have lost me altogether by the third chapter.
So what does that mean as far as a recommendation? I’m not sorry I read The Language of Flowers. But I didn’t have the sympathy for the struggle of the main character that I think was intended by the author. The story is interesting on its merits – the breakdown of a system meant to protect children and the ability of the natural world to preserve some core of humanity in even the most traumatized person – but the details and peripheral characters weren’t quite strong enough to completely overcome the thoroughly unlikable main character. This is a book filled with emotion – good, bad and ugly. Unfortunately, there was too much self-serving bad and ugly coming from Victoria for me give myself over completely to the admittedly compelling rest of the story. So no recommendation, but the solid and quite lovely tribute to the lost art of expression through nature make this a 3 star book instead of the 1 or 2 that usually results from such an inadequate main character.
photos by Brian W. Schaller and Toromedia