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The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

23rd August 2011

*I received this book at BEA, courtesy of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House. Buy it from Indiebound here.

For eight years I dreamed of fire. Trees ignited as I passed them; oceans burned. The sugary smoke settled in my hair as I slept, the scent like a cloud left on my pillow as I rose…. The sharp, chemical smell was nothing like the hazy syrup of my dreams; the two were as different as Indian and Carolina jasmine, separation and attachment. They could not be confused.

Separation and attachment. Victoria Jones has had much of the former and not much of the latter in her young life. Abandoned at the age of three weeks, Victoria was left to fend for herself with only her social worker Meredith to stand for her as family after family tells Meredith a different variation of “it’s just not working out.” Victoria’s final chance with Elizabeth, a woman who has suffered in her own way, gives her a glimpse of what having a mother is like, but Victoria, afraid to lose the only relationship she has ever valued, ends up in a group home anyway, only to be emancipated on her 18th birthday.

Without a support system, Victoria sleeps in the park, tending a small flower garden until she stumbles upon Renata, a florist in need of part-time help. Renata recognizes Victoria’s skill, and slowly Victoria’s skittishness dies away, until she meets a man at the flower market, a man who also knows the language of flowers and the secret of her past.

The Language of Flowers is a beautiful book, and once I picked it up, I could not stop reading. Motherhood is such a strong theme, but here is no story of glowing mothers-to-be; instead, motherhood is painful, full of sacrifices and hurts, which we glimpse as the 15 months Victoria and Elizabeth were together are told in flashbacks. Victoria is stunted in many ways, yet she understands far beyond her years, and in a sense, she is mothered by half a dozen women, younger and older, and she thrives because of this community.

Victoria’s story, and the way Diffenbaugh unfurls it, is intoxicating, as is the Victorian use of flowers and the messages Victoria weaves into her bouquets: jonquil for desire, hyacinth for constancy. Her only voice is in her flowers, and once she gives herself over to them, she comes into her own, rearranging her life and making space for Elizabeth when she needs her the most. And honestly, by the end of the book, if she and Elizabeth had not reconciled, I was fully prepared to bundle her up in a quilt (why a quilt??), cart her home, and feed her hot chocolate and cookies every day for the rest of her life.

Read: with a bit of dark chocolate and maybe a pear blossom branch (for comfort) by your side.

P.S. Here’s the link for the flower dictionary. I will definitely put more thought into my flowers in the future.