Monday, October 3, 2011

Book Review: The Language of Flowers (audio)

Looking back over the list I've kept of the books I read each month, September has been surprisingly busy, topping every month except the summer vacation month of June with a whopping 18 books read (about which more anon).  Four nights ago on my way home from work I finished the unabridged audio book of The Language of Flowers, written by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and read by Tara Sands.  Even though it has been on the IndieBound Bestseller list for the last several weeks, I knew next to nothing about this book, and I certainly wouldn't have guessed based on the cover or the title that its characters would be distinguished by their misfortunes.  So when a freebie copy arrived in the "White Box" from the ABA, I jumped at the chance to listen to it. 

Summary, courtesy of the publisher: "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."

Yes, Victoria is a victim of the world, exposed to its caprices and cruelties both large and small.  For one year in her life, she had a fleeting chance at happiness with her foster mother Elizabeth, but her inability to trust and love, combined with her finely-honed survival skills of hostility and a ten-year-old's reduced world view lead to disaster and heartbreak.  While I never could quite identify outright with Victoria (happily--I've never had to doubt my family's love for me) or her choices, it was certainly easy to sympathize with her.  

The novel mostly alternates the timeline every other chapter, starting the day Victoria turns 18 and "emancipates" from foster care with the narrative continuing onward from that day, and going back to Victoria's childhood, particularly the year she lives with Elizabeth, her last best hope to be adopted before being relegated to group homes for incorrigible foster children. About halfway through the audio it became pretty clear to me just how the earlier narrative would inexorably and heartbreakingly resolve into the later one. Neither narrative is particularly easy to listen to--it's hard to believe that the foster care system in this country fails to protect and care for so many children like Victoria, and her "adult" self is so misanthropic that frankly it's amazing that she makes it.  

And yet there are points of beauty in this novel.  The flowers themselves, certainly.  Elizabeth is a devoted gardener who teaches Victoria the language of flowers, and after she emancipates Victoria gets a job working for floral designer, Renata (who, despite her Russian background, reminded me of nobody so much as Minerva McGonagall).  But the small kindnesses Victoria encounters are also small points of beauty.  Meeting Renata's mother and being drawn into that gregarious family for Christmas mark the first time Victoria can recall feeling wanted at any family holiday.  She meets a young man of few words at the flower market who is the first person since Elizabeth left her life ten years ago who can read her flower messages. 

To say more of the plot would give too much away, I'm afraid, but it must be said that this is a novel about giving and taking chances, it's about abandonment and love, forgiveness and making amends.  In all, it was extremely satisfying.  I also liked the sly social justice interwoven into this story, with its tales of the foster care system, both woeful ( plentiful) and redemptive (not as many as one might like for a happier ending, but probably realistic). Tara Sands did a very good job reading this audio book, pulling off the sullen adolescent tones of young Victoria and the eastern European inflections of Renata & her family with equal aplomb.  I don't recall a single moment where I listened to the audio and wanted to rewind to enjoy a particular turn of phrase again, so I can't speak to the exquisite prose style very much on this one, but I can say that its strength lies in the fullness of the story.   



Levonne said...

Emily go to A Camp Host's Meandering's post from yesterday for a fix on the problem with allowing people to post comments on your site. I can't post to As the Crow Flies.

Anuradha Goyal said...

I read the book, and after reading your review am wondering how it would be to hear the book...with all those monotonous monologues.

Anuradha Goyal said...

BTW here is my review of the book: