The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh is a book I’d heard about but probably wouldn’t have read if it weren’t for book club. (Are you noticing a trend? I say that about a lot of the books I read, which is just one of the many reasons I love my book clubs.) As with most books I put off reading, however, I was glad I finally got to this one once I made it a few chapters in.
The novel opens on Victoria’s 18th birthday—the day she will age out of the California state foster care system. The story alternates between present day, where Victoria struggles to live on her own, and seven years earlier when she had her very last chance placement with a woman named Elizabeth. Elizabeth was obviously important to Victoria, who still carries around a book Elizabeth gave her, but she is not in the picture anymore. The story of what happened in each of their lives is a unveiled one memory at a time throughout the first 2/3 of the book.
One thing Victoria learned from Elizabeth is the Victorian language of flowers. When I studied abroad in Spain, I was fascinated to learn about the unspoken language Spanish women “spoke” using hand fans. Using flowers to communicate was similar. Victoria spends years memorizing her dictionary of flowers, which ends up playing a very important role in the plot.
I listened to the book, and although the narration was quite good, it’s one of those rare instances where I really would have preferred to have the text in front of me. I ended up stopping the narration more than once to look up the meanings of different flowers. I also wondered what unintended messages we sent with the flowers at our own wedding. We had a mix of flowers, but I specifically requested Gerbera daisies and snapdragons. According to one website, we were communicating grace*, strength, and happiness. Whew.
*And also deviousness, depending on context. Can’t win them all!
Overall, The Language of Flowers is a touching story, but it is not without conflict. More than once during the novel, I found myself silently begging Diffenbaugh to end the book well. Two of my book club friends had new babies when we discussed The Language of Flowers, and I really worried about how they would react to the story. I thought it handled difficult situations with a light touch and ended pretty happily, but I remember what it was like to see or read anything sad when I was a few months postpartum. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to a new mother unless she is made of stronger stuff emotionally than I am.