Friday, January 6, 2012

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh — 336 pgs

Victoria Jones is a victim of the foster care system. Given away at birth and repeatedly shuttled between loveless homes, it is no surprise that Victoria is both socially and emotionally stunted. But at age 9 she’s placed in the home of Elizabeth, a single woman who is also a vintner. As Victoria struggles with becoming attached to Elizabeth and growing into a healthy child, Elizabeth begins to teach her the Victorian rituals surrounding the language of flowers. The language of flowers is one of the oldest arts, and given that each flower has a meaning and an intention, what first only looks like a beautiful bouquet is transformed into a message to its recipient. From terse and abrupt to involved and intricate, Victoria begins to learn the definitions of the flowers and to access her innermost feelings through the art that Elizabeth so tenderly impresses upon her. But Elizabeth is also struggling with issues within her own extended family, and when Victoria takes it upon herself to garner retribution and secure her position in Elizabeth’s life, everything is changed in an instant. Now, many years later, Victoria has a chance to make amends in a very unusual way. Living the life of a damaged individual, she once again discovers the power of the language of flowers and their ability to heal her and erase her once unbearable past. But is it too late for Victoria? Can the damage wrought on her heart and psyche be washed away with delicate blossoms and hardy stems? It’s in Victoria’s journey that the past, present and future collide, and where the most painful and hopeful secrets must be uttered by the flowers and the secret messages they themselves deliver.

Though this book didn’t make it on my best of 2011 list, it was by far the best book I read over the last year. The reason it wasn’t there was because I hadn’t reviewed it yet and I felt a little silly raving about a book that I had not yet shared my thoughts about. I put this book off for a long while, and while my mind and all the other reviews I read were telling me it would be unforgettable, I had no idea how much this book would break open my soul and cause me to weep and grow anxious with anticipation. It’s not a happy book by any means, but it is a book that reflects on what it might be like to grow up damaged and what it might be like to try to unfurl all of those creased parts of your heart into a semblance of some type of normalcy.

At times this was a physically painful book to read. Victoria is so far from normal and so alienated that even her existence is one that most readers will find strange and unfamiliar. Growing up in the foster care system, Victoria has been through every permutation of neglect, from the loveless homes to the abusive homes and everywhere in between. When the book opens, Victoria is just turning 18 and is being emancipated from her group home, yet where she will end up is uncertain because she has no life skills to speak of. Emotionally, she’s still an angry child, and it takes several strange circumstances for her to even begin to be able to care for herself. She is the ultimate damaged individual and can’t tolerate being touched or have a normal conversation with anyone. It was hard to read about the life she was living, and when the opportunity came for someone to help her, I held my breath and urged her on quietly, afraid that she might turn tail and run.

When Victoria discovers that her affinity and knowledge of flowers and their meanings still survive intact inside her mind, she begins to slowly edge out into the real world and takes a job where these skills will serve her well. It’s here that she comes face to face with her past and a fragile and tentative bond begins to form between Victoria and a person from that past. But even as she goes forward, she’s unable to think and react in the ways that a normal person might, and her atypical behavior takes her further and further into the maw of irreparable brokenness and solemnness. I have to say that some of the things that she did during her struggles to become whole had my heart and mind twisting uncomfortably. Victoria is not normal, and though she’s not a bad person, she has almost no way of reacting to situations in a way that others would understand. It was almost as if she was a sort of primal and unformed person who only dealt with the visceral and who couldn’t understand even the basic underlying structure of being whole and emotionally healthy.

I fear that in writing this review I’ve made the book sound very dour and dark, and in a way it was, but in other ways it was beautiful and triumphant and uplifting. It’s the kind of book that grabs you from the inside and pulls and never lets you stop feeling, never lets you rest in the certainty of Victoria’s future, and it’s a book that will leave an impression on you a mile deep. As a bonus to the incredible story, the book also includes a Victorian dictionary of flowers and their meanings, which I found impossibly wonderful and very apropos. If you haven’t already added this one to your list, don’t wait any longer. It’s a book to be savored but also one that will first break and then heal your heart. Highly recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

34 comments:

Alison's Book Marks said...

I have read so many wonderful reviews of The Language of Flowers, and yours is at the top. Great review today!

Harvee said...

This was one of my favorite reads last year, thought I didn't do a review of it. Yours is detailed and excellent, as always!

Kay said...

Your review is quite a testimonial. I've got this book here and must get to it soon. Love the idea of learning the language of flowers. Very interesting.

Jenny said...

I read that sentence a couple times when you said it wasn't on your best of list but was one of your best reads over the past year... I was confused but I should have just read on because then I got it, LOL. I'm so glad you loved this one! I have this on my shelf but sort of keep forgetting about it. It sounds amazing and I definitely hope to get to it soon!!

Trisha said...

I'm always intrigued when someone says a book was her absolute favorite! I know how much that means to a true reader. Thanks for the suggestion!

Geosi said...

Your review has rather peaked my interest. Never dull at all. Thanks for this.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

As you know this was one of my favorites too. One thing I didn't talk about in my review and no one else has is that the flower meanings really seem to have some impact on *outcomes* and at the time I wondered if that was a bit woo-woo-ish, but I liked the book so much that sort of fell by the wayside. Still, something to consider.

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

Your reviews are so thoughtful and rich, Heather...I've already got this on on my WishList, but you've made me bump it up a few notches :) Can't wait for this one :)

Darlene said...

I didn't fully read your review. I just skimmed because I really want to pick this one up soon especially since you've told me how much you loved it. I've always really liked the cover as well - it's pretty.

Andi said...

I've had my eye on this one for some time, but I've seen surprisingly few reviews of it! I'm glad to have read yours.

I'm also sharing a link to your review on today's Linkapalooza post at my own blog. Going up shortly. :)

Anita said...

I'm not sure what has kept me away from this one. Maybe my concern it was more about flowers, but your review is so beautiful, I am sure I'll be reading it in 2012.
Thanks Heather.

Steph said...

Your review of this book is by far the most powerful one I have read to date. It's clear to me just how much this book affected you and I'm glad you took the time to really mull it over before writing your review. I hadn't really been all that interested in this book, but given how much it clearly means to you, I think I will give it a try now!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Well I have no excuse now. It is sitting right there on my nightstand. Excellent review. I can't wait to read it!

nomadreader said...

This book didn't appeal to me at first because of the title and cover. Once I heard what it was about, however, I became intrigued. I have it on my '2012 Orange Prize possibilities' list and hope to get to it before the longlist is announced in March. You're convinced me I must plan to do so rather than hope to. Thank you!

Marie said...

I'm glad you liked this so much. The praise seems to be universal. I have a copy sitting around from an event with Vanessa right when the book came out, and I really need to get to it! Thanks for the encouragement!

Vasilly said...

I swear, I should rename one of my shelves "Heather's recommendations"! :-) Thanks for the great review.

Brooke said...

I've really, really been on the fence having read both bad and gushing reviews of this - and then there was the flowers thing (I'm not a flowers kind of girl) which put me off. But your review has convinced me to give it a shot!

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

This one is new to me, but you have really peaked my interests. I'll be adding this one to my wish list. Great review!

TheBookGirl said...

Oh my Heather, your beautifully worded and evocative review has made me pull this one off my bookshelves to be read this month. I have had it for a while, and like many other books on my shelves, it sort of fell through the cracks of my TBR pile. Now I can't wait to get started.

bermudaonion said...

One of the members of my book club works in the foster care system here and she raves over this book. We'll be reading it in April. It sounds emotionally draining.

Aarti said...

Wow, beautiful review. So many people seem to have loved this novel, but your saying so definitely carries a lot of weight with me!

Kailana said...

I really want to read this at some point. I have heard many good things about it.

Jenners said...

Hey -- not reviewing my best book read in 2011 didn't stop me from mentioning it!! I'm a little sloppy in my blogging!

Well, it is hard to ignore this review so it is going on the list.

Suko said...

Oooh, this sounds unbelievably good! I already wanted to read this book; your wonderful review makes me crave it all the more!

Iris on Books said...

Reading your review I was indeed afraid the book would be very dark, but your comment that in many ways it is also warm and uplifting made me definitely feel I want to read this, as those are the kinds of books I enjoy a lot. I have read more enthousiastic reviews, but I think yours finally made me decide to put this on the TBR/wishlist.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

Best book of 2011? OK I definitely will be reading it soon. I am on my library's hold list for the audio version so hopefully it comes soon. ;) Your review is absolutely beautiful and made me want to read the book NOW!

Ti said...

You're right. It did have a darkness to it, but I felt that the cloud lifted as the story played out. Once she let her guard down, the hope began to surface.

It was well-written and stirred up all sorts of emotions in me. I love when a book does that.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I did enjoy the audio version of this one a lot. Glad you had a chance to read and enjoy it.

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

I have been wanting to read this book ever since I heard the storyline. I work with teenage girls in foster care and know I would see some of them in the protagonist of The Language of Flowers. I've wanted to ask someone if I should buy the actual copy so I could share it with the girls I work with or if it is too, well, much. Otherwise I will just buy the e-version. What do you think?

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

oh and I did not do a best of list because I just couldn't come up with an actual list of favorite books from last year - I must not have been reading the right books! Hopefully this year will be different.

Beth F said...

I've been on the fence about this one but I have long been fascinated with the meanings of flowers and idea that people (lovers) sent messages by using particular flowers. I'll have to dig this one out for a 2012 read.

Jules said...

While I'm not sure if this book is my cup of tea, its wonderful to hear how much it affected you and how much you enjoyed it. I love when books affect me like that! Great review!

Amy said...

I'm thrilled you liked this book so much, Heather. I want to read this book very much but I'm waiting a little while because I am looking forward to it so much. I realize that may sound weird but I like to do that sometimes.

Ever since I was a prosecutor and then worked for the social services dept. on child abuse and neglect systems I've felt the foster care system needs a complete over haul. Had I been able to continue working, I would have focused in the area of adoption, abuse & neglect of children and foster care. I still think about. So I was excited when this book appeared and even more so when the reviews were generally positive. I'm also looking forward to the book because it sounds like a great story, too.

Just reading your review and some others about how damaged Victoria is is painful. I understand why it made you weep. I can't even imagine how bad her upbringing was for her to be so damaged because of it. That's painfully sad and so wrong. It scares me for real children in foster care. I also think it's terrible that every child in foster care is sent out on their own at 18 with some measily amount of money. I think it's great that Vanessa Diffenbaugh started an organization to help foster children who age out.

This is a fantastic review. I didn't find it just dark but thought you were clear that there is also hope and inspiration and reason to smile in this book.

Amy said...

I'm thrilled you liked this book so much, Heather. I want to read this book very much but I'm waiting a little while because I am looking forward to it so much. I realize that may sound weird but I like to do that sometimes.

Ever since I was a prosecutor and then worked for the social services dept. on child abuse and neglect systems I've felt the foster care system needs a complete over haul. Had I been able to continue working, I would have focused in the area of adoption, abuse & neglect of children and foster care. I still think about. So I was excited when this book appeared and even more so when the reviews were generally positive. I'm also looking forward to the book because it sounds like a great story, too.

Just reading your review and some others about how damaged Victoria is is painful. I understand why it made you weep. I can't even imagine how bad her upbringing was for her to be so damaged because of it. That's painfully sad and so wrong. It scares me for real children in foster care. I also think it's terrible that every child in foster care is sent out on their own at 18 with some measily amount of money. I think it's great that Vanessa Diffenbaugh started an organization to help foster children who age out.

This is a fantastic review. I didn't find it just dark but thought you were clear that there is also hope and inspiration and reason to smile in this book.

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