Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Language of Flowers Book Cover The Language of Flowers
Vanessa Diffenbaugh

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 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.

Review:

(Actual rating: 2.5 stars)

I’m afraid to admit it, because I know I’m in the minority here, but I had a hard time connecting to The Language of Flowers. I’m not sure why this is the case; my favorite stories have always been the ones that pack an emotional punch, and this novel is loaded with characters and content that theoretically should incite deep, powerful emotions in me. For some reason, though, I didn’t fall in love with this book the way I thought I should’ve. It’s like a cake baked with all the right ingredients, in all the right quantities, that still doesn’t taste quite right.

What’s especially confusing about my lack of love for The Language of Flowers is that I expected the story to resonate with me on a very personal level. Like Victoria, the novel’s protagonist, my mother spent her childhood in foster care and group homes. Although she grew up to be one of the most amazing, caring women I’ve ever known, I’m aware from reading her old journals and psychological evaluations that she endured unspeakable things as a child. Victoria’s horrific experiences, therefore, should have spoken to me in a very profound way, and I should have been more understanding of her as a character.

That being said, I think the difference is that I only know a portion of my mother’s story, just enough to appreciate how miraculous it is that she was able to become the fulfilled, happy person she is today. I wasn’t around to witness her transition from a damaged adolescent to a healthy adult or to see her when she was in the fragile, closed-off emotional state in which the reader sees Victoria. As a result, Victoria feels very foreign to me, completely different from everyone I’ve ever met, including my mother.

This foreignness plays a huge part in my disconnect from The Language of Flowers. Victoria is so “other,” her actions so entirely different from my own, that reading about her is unsettling and uncomfortable. Her experiences as a foster child leave her damaged and mistrustful, and she distances herself from others figuratively and literally, seeking isolation and becoming physically sick if people touch her too often. The only way she can communicate is through flowers, knowing that there is little risk of anyone understanding her messages and replying in kind. She’s so closed off that even the reader is held at arm’s length, making it difficult to form a bond with her.

This doesn’t mean that I dislike Victoria, or that I have no sympathy for her. On the contrary, I felt like I was sitting in a haze of pity and sadness for the duration of the book, even though I don’t think that’s what the author intended. I’m pretty sure the reader is supposed to be imbued with a sense of hope at the end of the novel, but all I felt was an overwhelming sense of relief that Victoria’s life is not my own.

Another point worth mentioning is that although my library marked The Language of Flowers as a romance, it isn’t like any other romance I’ve ever read. When considering how to describe Victoria’s relationship with her love interest, the words “awkward,” “desperate,” and “unconventional” come to mind. Like the rest of the story, the “romance” made me feel a bit uncomfortable and a little sad. Saying anything further risks giving too much away, so I’ll leave it at that.

I realize that my review sounds less than encouraging, but I don’t mean it to be. Many, many others have read The Language of Flowers and loved it, as well they should. Heck, I feel like I should have loved it as well and that my lack of enthusiasm is some sort of fluke. So, my recommendation is to read it. Just because it wasn’t my cup of tea doesn’t mean that it won’t be yours.

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