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I got this book when it was on offer on the Kindle store and then didn't read it for several months. I am regretting waiting that long as, after only a few pages, I was hooked.
I found myself close to tears a couple of times as I read through and it is a long time since a book has produced such an emotional response from me. It is both harrowing, sad, touching and hopeful all at the same time. The further we go into Victoria's post-carehome life the more I wanted to know. Diffenbaugh draws us into Victoria's world and, indeed, into her mind. A very broken mind, downtrodden by a system which has repeatedly (through her keyworker) told her that she is a bad person, ruining everything she touches and undeserving of a happy ending. Whether she gets a happy ending is for the reader to decide...
As a back-drop we learn a little about "The Language of Flowers" (now something I am enthralled by and want to know more about).
If you find a thoughtful book, with intriguing ideas and don't mind flashback memory chapters then I would highly recommend checking out this book.
It was with a feeling of apprehension that I started reading this book - having read both a glowing review on this very site and the publisher's claim that this book "will be the publishing event of 2011", I wasn't sure it could live up to the hype. I neededn't have worried, from the very first page it was incredibly easy to fall in love with this book which was a haunting, intelligent and compelling read.
The story starts with Victoria, the protaganist of the book leaving the foster home where she has been living as she comes of age, and then goes back and forth in time as the strands are brought together so that we can understand how she got to be the person she is. During her turbulent life Victoria has learned the almost forgotten language of flowers, where every bloom expresses something different. In Victorian times every flower had its meaning, as it does in this novel with references peppered through the book in a natural and unannoying way. As the story here unfolds Victoria finds work of sort with a florist and ways of expressing herself with flowers which touches those around here. As her new life begins the past will come back to her in a way she hasn't imagined. Will she find her place in the world and why does she struggle so much with the past? A strong story and interesting characters kept me turning the pages to find out.
Victoria was not an easy character to understand at times - I wondered if the author had drawn on her own life experiences (there's mention in the blurb of working with foster children) to show someone afflicted with what seemed to be a form of attachment disorder who found it hard to emotionally relate to others and who was strangely detached from what was happening to her. Some of the parts of the book were almost painful to read but throughout everything I wanted things to work out for Victoria. The author managed to conjure up a whole cast of sympathetic characters along the way, who were not without their flaws either, which made them more believable, and the dialogue was very realistic. From Elizabeth who was the closest Victoria came to having a mother, to Renata the flower shop owner and Grant the strangely familiar flower market stall holder, and the book was well paced and absolutely beautifully written. Though there was a love interest the author managed to avoid cliche and maintain my interest right up to the end.
I enjoyed every single page of this book, including the flower dictionary at the end of the book, which is very interesting. I will definitely being reading this book again. Highly recommended - this is an excellent debut from an author from whom I would like to see more.
Details from Amazon:
Publisher: Macmillan (18 Aug 2011)
I read a proof copy as part of the Amazon Vine programme, the book is currently available for £7.00 in hardcover version, £12.99 in paperback and also on kindle.
Victoria Jones has spent all her eighteen years of life so far in the care system, passed from one foster family to another and then, after the age of ten classed as implacable and left to get by the best she can until her 'emancipation' at 18. The only time she had a real chance at love and a family she ruined herself by suspicion and an unfortunate misunderstanding, leaving her unable to love or trust again.
Now she is free of the system, but without any proper education, no skills or training and no means of support after doing nothing to find work in the halfway house, on the streets she first sleeps in the park before finding a chance part-time job with a florist. Slowly she makes a frail uneasy life for herself with a friend in her employer, Renata, and the customers who frequent the flower shop whom she shows her care to when choosing the flowers she loves to send 'messages' by way of the meaning of the flowers she picks. Soon though her life will change completely when her past catches up with her and finally she has to choose between learning to love or letting the one person she cares about to become like her.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh's debut novel is part love story, part tale of redemption and part of the way in which social services let down the very people they seek to protect. Set in modern-day San Francisco, and periodically in the flower and vineyards just out of the city, Victoria's life is told in alternate chapters between the past and the present, the unloved and the wanted child, the difference between a rose and a thistle.
One thing Victoria keeps from her past is the love of flowers and the understanding of their meaning, an offering from her would-be mother, who never really let her go.
This is the language Victoria uses for communication, the flowers and foliage often sending contradictorily messages and used as much for insults as love.
This is the extra meaning that lifts a familiar story out of the ordinary to make it a story that begs to be read and enjoyed.
One would expect such a book to have a heroine the reader can care about and hope that she finds the love she so obviously needs. Yet I found Victoria to be frustrating more than lovable and sometimes I wanted to chide her for the behavior that turns people away from her. I even felt sorry for her social worker, the long-suffering Meredith who did seem to try her best. Yet I couldn't help but feel that was the very reaction the author wanted the reader to adopt, so she succeeded with me. Victoria takes as her own flower the thistle, whose meaning is misanthropy. When dealing with people she dislikes she makes up bouquets that mean things like mistrust and hatred. As I read on I did think that maybe the author had overdone the frightening behavior shown by her character, though I expect she knows more about the care system than I. However, I imagine a few people might feel the same as I did.
For me the next most important character is that of Elizabeth, the woman who wanted to adopt Victoria when she was nine years old. I found her both believable and likable, whilst still managing to show great compassion and understanding of Victoria's needs. I thought the description of her home with the vineyards a large part of her property added an interest to the story that also tied in with the theme of flowers. This love and meaning she passes to Victoria and also to another person who will feature strongly in Victoria's adult life.
Grant, Vanessa's one male friend, is another strong character who plays a large part in the theme of the floral meanings. Through Victoria buying flowers from him and their mutual understanding of the meaning of flowers, the idea of a book that compares the many different meanings into one with the best choice is not just an attractive side-line, but a very real list that the author places at the back of the book. I thought this helped me with the vaguest parts of the book and also read as a personal interest. It did become a little too much at times though when I longed for the characters to speak in mere words.
There are quite a cast of minor characters that add both interest and a comparison to Victoria and Elizabeth's more suspicious natures. Renata makes a good friend and employer with her wonderfully portrayed mother Ruby, a real mother figure and part-time midwife. Then there's Marlena, another orphan that Victoria takes under her own wing. All add to the general idea of a support system so vital to Victoria when she starts to hate and doubt herself.
In some ways this is a straightforward story with a strong background of unspoken rather than shown abuse. There was little real abuse by the foster mothers, although I am probably more used to reading stronger stories with some horrendous abuse as a feature. But it did make me question the character of Victoria occasionally.
I also felt the author had tried a little too hard, but again, this is a personal observation.
The story had some good elements and unfolded well with a very strong second half of the book. As the story wound towards the climax and the hidden secrets emerged, I found that I'd guessed many, but it was still a good twist. I felt myself responding to the characters better and my compassion for the frailty of human emotions became clearer.
Would I recommend it?
I'm giving this four stars as I feel this could have been a stronger and more realistic story with some sharp editing. I love flowers and I know a fair bit about the meanings, being a pretty enthusiastic amateur gardener, but even I felt this a tad overdone. I do expect many to disagree with me, it's a book with a strong emotional appeal, I just felt it maybe too much.
My copy was borrowed from the library and thanks to Mummy2Harry for the excellent review that got me to read it.
As always, thank you for reading.
©Lisa Fuller 2011.
The Victorian language of flowers was used to express emotions: honeysuckle for devotion, azaleas for passion, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it has been more useful in communicating feelings like 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, Victoria has nowhere to go, and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. When her talent is discovered by a local florist, she discovers her gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But it takes meeting a mysterious vendor at the flower market for her to realise what's been missing in her own life, and as she starts to fall for him, she's forced to confront a painful secret from her past, and decide whether it's worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.
I try not to get too excited about highly anticipated books because I have found more and more that books I really look forward to just don't live up to my expectations, and I end up disappointed. I had seen this book mentioned on a few blogs as one to watch, but I hadn't taken much notice as it didn't really sound like my sort of thing. However, when a gorgeous hardback copy landed on my doorstep a couple of weeks ago, I was taken in by the absolutely stunning cover and after reading the blurb again, I decided I'd give it a try after I got my review books all read. I am so glad I gave it a chance because it was a fantastic book and certainly one I wouldn't usually pick up... it's great to read a book that takes you by surprise and stays with you!
The book is told is a really good way that gets you totally involved in the story and makes you want to read on because you want to see how everything unfolds, a clever technique used by the author there. There are alternating chapters, one with Victoria's present day story, and then another flashing back to her childhood when she lived with her aoptive mother-to-be Elizabeth. I found the narrative easy to keep up with, being written from Victoria's perspective allows you to get completely engrossed in her tale, both past and present and you find yourself feeling such sympathy for the girl who feels unwanted by everyone she's ever met in her life. It does sound like it could be a tragic tale, but there's something ultimately uplifting about this book.
The lead character of Victoria is certainly a great one. I really enjoyed hearing about her life with Elizabeth, the first place she's ever felt settled after being shoved from pillar to post when she was a very young girl in the American foster care system. It is hard to read about how hard her life was, and as a mother, I felt awful that a child could feel so unloved and burdened by life at such a young age. Diffenbaugh really captures Victoria's feelings so well, and I loved her use of first person narrative to allow the reader right into her head to experience her emotions along with her.
As well as writing a great lead character, Diffenbaugh has created a cast which complements the story brilliantly without taking the focus away from Victoria at all. There is Grant, Elizabeth's nephew and Victoria's some-time friend, a complex character who I felt just wanted to be loved, much like Victoria did. I liked how his story slowly unfolds in both Victoria's past and present narratives. Renata, the owner of flower shop Bloom has several roles in the story, and I liked her positive influence of Victoria, she is a bit of brightness in what could be a dull and lifeless world for her. Elizabeth is also a very well written character, lots of depth here and it was interesting to read about her simply from Victoria's mind, giving an biased but heartfelt account of the pair's relationship.
Of course, the flowers play a major part in the book, as the book is called The Language of Flowers. I had no idea about any of this before I picked up the book. I knew a few flowers had special meanings but not what they were or how complex the system is. Diffenbaugh manages to weave this information fluently throughout the story, revealing meaning after meaning to the readers in an interesting way, through Victoria's own love of blooms. I found it fascinating to find out some of the more popular flower's meanings, certainly not what you'd expect and I loved how passionately Victoria writes about them. It was easy to visualise some of Victoria's bouquets, the vivid descriptions by Diffenbaugh bring them to life in your mind with ease. Included at the back is a list of flowers and meanings, which is great if you're interested in finding out more once you've read the story. I did sit and have a quick read of this, it's worth a look once you've finished the book!
This book was an absolute delight to read from start to finish, and I am so glad I gave this book a try. It isn't the easiest read in parts, due to Victoria's sad life and the decisions she makes as she grows older and deals with the consequences of her actions. However, it is very thought provoking and beautifully written, with the flowers and their meanings intrinsicly woven throughout to solidify the story of Victoria and those around her. I have to say I liked the power Victoria had through her flowers, and how they seemed to influence those who had them, a touch of magic in an otherwise unmagical life. I found myself captivated by Victoria's story, equally by her past and present, eager to find out how things would end in both areas of Victoria's life. Please do read this book if you get a chance, it'll be worth every minute of your time it takes to read it. A stunning debut.
ISBN: 978-0230752580. Published by Macmillan on 18th August 2011. Pages: 400. RRP: 12.99
Thank you to the publishers for sending me a copy to review for http://chicklitreviews.com
Thank you for reading.