Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Language of Flowers

In the early eighteenth century, the Turkish secret language of flowers was introduced to Europe by Lady Mary Wortley Montague, wife of the British Ambassador to Constantinople. It was especially popular in Victorian England, providing a coded means of communication. In a period that discouraged overt display of emotions, flowers and flower designs allowed individuals a means to express their feelings. (http://www.joellessacredgrove.com/language.html and Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_Flowers)

Author Vanessa Diffenbaugh ingeniously weaves her plot around this concept, enabling the main protagonist, Victoria Jones, as well as her mentor, Elizabeth, to communicate in a language known to a select few. Victoria is a foster child, having lived in 32 homes by the time she is 18. When she comes to live with Elizabeth at age 9, she is already an angry child with severe communication and attachment issues. Elizabeth has a flower and fruit orchard--a beautiful, enchanting place which she tends with great care.

The Language of Flowers is told in first person narration by Victoria. It weaves back and forth through present and past. There is a component of mystery as we wonder why Elizabeth does not adopt Victoria. We also know that Victoria's destructiveness has inflicted great tragedy without knowing the outcome (until the book's end). Issues of family abound in this novel, as do themes of love and forgiveness.

The author explores what it means for a child to not know security within the folds of a loving family. Through Victoria, we come to understand the nature of group homes and multiple home placements. The book presents well-drawn characters that resonate with uncomplicated goodness, such as the florist, Renata and her nephew, Grant. Above all, it realistically portrays Victoria's growth as she struggles to trust those around her.

Diffenbaugh depicts a sympathetic portrait of a character that is not likable. This is a gift likewise exhibited by Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kitteridge. Both women are hurtful characters whose actions are driven by anger, jealousy and distrust. Yet in the hands of skilled writers, the reader is able to remain empathetic and non-judgmental.

The Language of Flowers
is an engrossing first novel by a talented writer. Be prepared to read it quickly. It is impossible to put down.

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