Book Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

language of flowers Book Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Shakespeare famously (and metaphorically, but work with me here) asserted that a rose is a rose, no matter its name. For Victoria Jones, Vanessa Diffenbaughs misanthropic protagonist, every variety of flower or weed is drenched with allusive meaning: peonies represent hatred, while yellow roses have associations of jealousy and infidelity. And it is through this floral language that taciturn, self-loathing Victoria communicates: there is a meticulous concreteness to the idea of communicating via a carefully crafted gift, and the one-to-one subject-to-meaning ratio takes away the ambiguity that Victoria so loathes.

Flowers are a central feature in Victorias life, representing key turning points, both positive and negative. Abandoned at birth and having been handballed throughout myriad foster homes in her early childhood, Victoria only begins to develop any sort of emotional connection with another individual when she is introduced to Elizabeth, a foster mother who teaches Victoria the hidden depth of meaning found within every bud, branch or flower. Indeed, it is the language that Elizabeth once shared with her sister when mere words were not enough. Buoyed by the demonstrative potential of this language Victorias floral vocabulary blooms, and she and Elizabeth settle into something approaching a mother-daughter relationship.

But the language of flowers can be as painful as it is beautiful, as Victoria soon finds out. The novel fast forwards to Victorias teens, where she is alone once more and quickly approaching her third strike. Victoria is utterly uninspired and unengaged, and she seems barely connected with the worldL indeed, she drifts out of her half-way home and spends her nights sleeping in a park to be closer to the plants with whom she feels such an affinity. Finally, desperately hungry and lost, Victoria seeks out laconic florist Renata, who takes her on as an apprentice. Victoria, of course, is an astonishingly gifted floral designer, sculpting bouquets that are infused with narratives and meaning, and soon develops a reputation as being some sort of flower medium. Couples line up to reap the benefits of her bouquets, which promise happy futures and meaningful relationshipsnone seem too concerned that Victoria is utterly incapable of even the most basic of acquaintances herself.

Of course, this calm status quo cant be maintained for too long, and Victoria finds herself haunted by a spectre of her past: Grant, Elizabeths nephew, becomes an awkward fixture in her life, being at once a reminder of the unspoken misdemeanours of her past and an individual fluent in the only language that Victoria understands.

Told diachronically, the narrative alternates between Victoria in the present and Victoria as a child, and theres a constant sense of things slowly unravelling. This is, perhaps, because the past narrative is leading up to the point where the reader will finally determine what happened to destroy the tentative bond between Elizabeth and Victoria, and the implication is that the present narrative will have to follow a similar thread. While initially this works relatively well, the novel becomes so stretched and thin towards the end that it is as though it is the literary equivalent of an elastic band stretched to breaking pointthis is even visibly evident in the way that the chapters undergo a type of wasting disease: the earlier chapters are plump and rounded, while the later chapters receive the Agatha Christie one-paragraph-per-chapter treatment.

At its heart, the story is a quiet, reflective one (and perhaps, dare I say it, one designed for novella or short story length rather than novel form) filled with people who are'rather than do. But cornered somewhat by the impending reveal regarding Victorias dark past, Diffenbaugh seeks to keep things moving along in the present, and does so by adhering to the old writing adage of throwing rocks at her characters. Needless disasters abound, characters are routinely abandoned for plot purposes, and poor decisions seem to come out of nowhere for no more reason than to throw some rather large wrenches in the works (the tagline, after all, is anyone can grow into something beautiful, and Diffenbaugh works hard to make her anyone about as loathsome and unlikeable as it gets). I cant help but feel that had a different structure been selected the novel would have had a more cohesive feel overall.

While Diffenbaughs floral conceits are intriguing, the language of flowers does make for an awkward, unsubtle short-hand at times, although to be honest its rather a respite from the painful, precocious dialogue were otherwise treated to. Without exception the characters are introspective and prone to sullen silences, but the few conversations that do dot the pages have an odd intensity to them that makes them a chore to read. Theres just so much earnestness'hereand not just in the dialogue, but in the narrative structure, the themes, and the charactersthat its hard to identify with anyone or anything in this book.

The Language of Flowers'is a novel that will no doubt precipitate much discussion at myriad book clubs, but I cant help but feel a little underwhelmed by it. The turgidity of the narrative, the relentless efforts to present Victorias world as being hard and desultory, the battering ram of the thematic elements and the twists and coincidences that plague the end of the novel detract from what begins as a strong read.

Rating: ????? 'good)

With thanks to Pan Macmillan Australia for the review copy

Your turn: whats your take on dual parallel narratives?

Purchase The Language of Flowers from Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA | Booktopia

Related Posts with Thumbnails