Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fiction: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s new novel, The Language of Flowers (Ballantine), came with a lot of hype. I wasn’t sure it would live up to it.

The story jumps back and forth in time, between the childhood and adulthood of a woman named Victoria Jones. As a child, she was shuttled from foster home to foster home, eventually ending up at the farm of Elizabeth, who has familial demons of her own to deal with. As a young adult, Victoria is no longer in touch with Elizabeth -- which fact creates a tension and a question -- Why? -- that drives the twin narratives forward.

Elizabeth teaches Victoria about the language of flowers, the hidden meanings, the code, of each flower. What yellow roses mean, versus red. What thistle means. And on and on. And what they mean in combination. This part of the book is fascinating, especially as the flowers are used to deliver messages among the main characters.

I was -- and remain -- completely smitten with Victoria. She’s not always likable, with enough rough edges to draw blood if you get too close, but there’s something about her that makes her irresistible. Her forthrightness. Her honesty. She’s compelling, even captivating—and it’s her personality, above all, that propels the novel forward.

The pages turn almost by themelves, and I found myself purposefully slowing down, to read this luscious book at a more relaxed pace, absorbing its language, Diffenbaugh’s gorgeous sentences. Her prose is direct, simple, and she wisely avoids over-writing, which would have been easy to do in a book about flowers how stunningly beautiful they are, and what they say. I’m sure she was tempted to over-describe them, but she resisted. The result is a book that’s smartly assembled and smartly written.

The structure of The Language of Flowers forces you to keep reading. As the two halves converge, the tension grows to an almost unbearable state. At the end, I was driven to tears as many of the strands of Victoria’s story come together. As for the hype, why was I worried?

Bonus: The glossary at the back. The next time you buy someone flowers, you’ll know what the blossoms you choose are really saying. Or even better, you can buy them based on what you want to say. How much fun is that? ◊

Tony Buchsbaum, a contributing editor of January Magazine and Blue Coupe, lives in central New Jersey with his wife and sons. These days, he is writing his second novel. Again.

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