Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Review by Nicky Pellegrino
It’s may have a romantic title but The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Macmillan $39.99) is grittier than your average love story. It’s about a child caught up in the care system and what happens to her when she turns 18 and is sent out into the world to survive alone.
Victoria Jones has pretty much run out of chances. At every foster home things have gone badly. New foster mother Elizabeth seems like her salvation. She lives in a charming house in a vineyard, she is patient and understanding, and she teaches Victoria the old-fashioned meanings for flower – daisies are for innocence, peonies mean anger, acacia signifies secret love, hyacinth beauty etc. This damaged girl seems to have found someone to cherish her at last.
The trouble is Elizabeth has her own family problems and when they threaten Victoria’s new happiness she takes drastic action. We don’t find out what she does until well into the book but we know she no longer sees Elizabeth and the final years of her childhood have been lived out unhappily in group girls’ homes.
At 18 Victoria is emancipated from the care system and winds up sleeping rough in a strand of trees in a San Francisco park where she plants a flower garden. Her salvation is a chance meeting with a warm-hearted florist called Renata who offers her work and helps her find a room to rent. Victoria is a success at the florist shop as she tailor-makes bouquets for clients using her knowledge of the secret meanings of flowers – lily of the valley to bring happiness to a dour teenager on her birthday, periwinkle (tender recollections) for a man to give his wife who’s not the woman she used to be. Then at the flower market she comes across a reminder of her life with Elizabeth and is forced to face up not just to her past actions but how she will shape her future.
The flaw in this story is that there seem to be a lot of people prepared to help Victoria with no questions asked. I’m not convinced this would happen in the real world. Where the novel does seem realistic is in its portrayal of life as a foster child. US author Diffenbaugh has worked with kids in the care system and been a foster parent herself. This has provided her with valuable insights and helped shape Victoria’s character - smart but destructive and difficult, intent on sabotaging her own happiness, distrustful of any sort of affection. Diffenbaugh shows you why she’s turned out this way both convincingly and heartbreakingly.
The Language Of Flowers is a debut novel and there’s a clarity and assurance to the writing. The flower theme might have seemed sentimental but Diffenbaugh makes it work beautifully. The Victorians used flowers to convey what words could not, and for the character of Victoria they serve a similar purpose. At the back of the book Diffenbaugh has compiled her own dictionary of flower meanings which is a nice touch.
This is a story with a strong social conscience. The author is the co-founder of an organisation called the Camellia Network that’s devoted to supporting young people in the US who are transitioning from foster care. Diffenbaugh has managed to turn this personal crusade into the background for an absorbing, original and thoughtful read. If you were to give her flowers for the work then I think they ought to be bird of paradise (magnificence) with a bit of laurel (glory and success).
Nicky Pellegrino, a succcesful author of popular fiction, (The Italian Wedding was published in May 2009 while her latest, Recipe for Lifewas published by Orion in April, 2010), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above piece, and the following were first published on 2 October, 2011.
Book Watch
What are the odds against this happening – two leading UK espionage thriller writers have novels published within a month of each other both with the same theme and incredibly similar story lines featuring Somali pirates, their kidnapping of ships and crews and their attempts to gain massive ransoms.

Rip Tide by Stella Rimington (Bloomsbury, $36.99)
Rimington is the former director general of secret service agency MI5.
Since retiring she’s written six highly successful novels featuring secret service agent Liz Carlyle and this is the latest. 
When pirates attack a cargo ship off the Somalian coast, at the outset of Rip Tide and one of them is found to be a British-born Pakistani, alarm bells start ringing at MI5 headquarters in London. Liz Carlyle is brought in to establish how and why a young British Muslim could go missing from his home in Birmingham and end up onboard a pirate skiff in the Indian Ocean, armed with a Kalashnikov.
Fair Game by Stephen Leather (Hodder & Stoughton, $36.99)
After a career as a journalist, Stephen Leather began writing fiction in 1987 and since then has had some 26 best-selling novels published. This latest one, Fair Game, is the eighth novel featuring SAS trooper turned undercover agent with MI5, Dan 'Spider' Shepherd. When Somali pirates seize the crew of a yacht off the coast of Africa, early on in Fair Game they bite off more than they can chew. One of the hostages has friends in high places and Spider Shepherd is put on the case. He goes deep undercover in an audacious plan to bring an end to the pirate gang’s reign of terror. But as Shepherd closes in on his quarry he realises there’s more at stake than the lives of the hostages and that the pirates are involved in a terrorist plot that will strike at the heart of London.
So two highly successful authors with similar plots in their latest novels. Which to read? I greatly enjoyed both. Fair Game at 506 pages is a much bigger read than Rip Tide at 370 pages. There’s a great ring of authenticity in both books; I found them pacey, thrilling, convincing and rather worryingly topical.  Just recenly a London-based book publishing executive was killed when Somalis launched a kidnapping raid on an upmarket Kenyan resort. Toss a coin or read them both!
Reviewed by Graham Beattie a former publisher who blogs daily about books at

1 comment:

Canada said...

he Language of Flowers to be a refreshing change from the typical boys meets girl romance. The prose was enchanting and the storyline kept me reading late into the night (I read the whole book in 3 days) The book consists of the current story of Victoria trying to survive after leaving the foster care system accompanied by flashbacks to her young life in the foster care system. The richness of the story came from the obstacles that held Victoria back from love due to her experience in the foster care system. The incoporation of the meaning of flowers gave the story a bit more depth. A bonus is the Language of Flowers dictionary in the back that tells you the meaning of flowers. I found myself wandering through my yard looking up the mearning of all the flowers in my garden.