Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Vanessa Diffenbaugh has been a foster mother to teenagers, which makes her depiction of the emotional life of Victoria Jones, a girl who has recently "aged out" of the foster care system all the more believable. Victoria has been deeply scarred; after not paying her rent in the transitional house she was taken to by her social worker, she ends up living in a San Francisco park, where she tends a garden of plants she has stolen from people's yards. The plants she picks for their meanings (e.g., helenium means tears) rather than their beauty.

One day she happens upon a florist unloading her van and earns some money by carrying things for her. When the florist, Renata, discovers that Victoria can create beautiful arrangements, she gives her a job and finds her a peculiar room (essentially a closet in Renata's sister's apartment) down the street from her shop. Interspersed with stories of Victoria's present are recollections of the year that she spent in the home of foster mother and vineyard owner Elizabeth when she was 8. Clearly, this is the place that should have but didn't become Victoria's home. Meanwhile, back in the present, Victoria meets Grant, Elizabeth's nephew, at the flower market, and they become involved. He, too, is interested in the meaning of flowers--but, shockingly to Victoria, he knows an entirely different set of meanings, learned from his mother, Elizabeth's estranged sister. The two engage in a long process of research and debate to arrive at a set of shared meanings. There is also an element of what is almost magical realism, as Victoria becomes known as a florist whose can choose a bloom that will reshape lives and relationships.

As the stories of Victoria past and present unfold, Diffenbaugh explores the damage done by betrayal, loss, and a life lived without love or tenderness. I hope it is not giving too much away to say that the ending is more positive, focusing on the healing power of love and meaningful work. Perhaps it's a reflection on my cynicism that the damage seems more believable than the redemption. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book, particularly the role that flowers and their meanings played in Victoria's life.

Favorite passage:
Chamomile. . . energy in adversity.

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