Friday, June 20, 2014

Book Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

This was the latest book selected as part of the book club. It is the type of book that I never would have picked up in a thousand years. I was hesitant to start the book as pretty much when we picked it, it was described as a "candy" and "girl" book. This is what I get by being in a book club dominated by women! Still, I promised I would give it a shot and ended up finding things I liked in it. So while it wasn't the best for me, at least I don't feel like I wasted my time.

Read on for my full review.

Overall Impression
I have to admit that The Language of Flowers captured me very quickly with the initial part. The book started quite good with a typical, yet always enjoyable, arc of a character pulling herself out of a dire situation. It reminded me at times of the Hero's Journey, though her experiences and conflicts are a bit more internal. It also had a sort of mystical feel to the flowers and their hidden messages, which was cool.

After the initial setup, however, the story takes a quick turn and suffers from it. It becomes a bit of a love story and seemingly negates a lot of the tension and build up on the first part. I was enjoying the first part, but this turned sour on the second part. Only at the end was there some good, emotional resolution, yet it felt cheapened by the middle section. I'm clearly not the intended audience for the book. This book is on the completely opposite end of the spectrum from what I read.

The book is divided in a couple of parts. For the first part, we get introduced to Victoria as she is effectively thrown out to live on her own. Faced with adversity she finally has to overcome her internal demons to survive and make a life for herself. This part is very cool as it reflects a sort of coming-of-age story or even the hero's journey. It reminded me of several books that feature such distraught characters, such as Wild by Cheryl Strayed and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

The second part of the book, however, turns downhill and I felt betrayed by the promise in the first part. Victoria goes from worrying about her life, her cash, having a place to stay or food to eat, to developing a romantic relationship with a quickly introduced character. All her money problems seem to magically
vanish. She refers to her watch and her backpack and is shown splurging on candy bars and photographic film at a pharmacy. It makes all the tension on the first part a moot point. The romance on its own feels horribly cliched and the match, made in heaven. The first part promised so much more. However, the story is not without some fair qualities. Victoria is still an interesting character and pulls the story through. The author makes good use of alternating chapters to develop her backstory and manages to inject some much needed intrigue.

The book does redeem itself somewhat in the last part. Victoria manages to pull herself together after such a long period of drama. Given the middle part that dragged on, it came a little bit too late. I felt the character was ready for that much, much earlier. Furthermore, her final change of heart felt a little too similar to all her prior changes, which ultimately failed her. She does state that she understands what she needs to do, and more importantly demonstrates some steps taken in that regard, but again we're left wondering how long this will last given all the prior evidence.

The main character, Victoria, is interestingly developed as she has some very clear strengths and weaknesses. She is an orphan and quite a rebel; however, she is a fast learner and has an uncanny knowledge and ability with flowers. The book plays to her strengths, while reminding us of her limitations. Too often do we see characters who only have strengths (or weaknesses) so this makes her a well-developed character. Her background, however, doesn't feel as unique or varied as I would have liked. It's also odd how well she can speak, write, and has a scientific approach to things (like the classification of flowers), despite the impression that she barely went to school.

There are a handful of other characters that touch on Victoria's life, mainly these are Grant, Elizabeth, and Catherine. The love interest is Grant. It's obvious Victoria and Grant are destined to be together from the start and not just because he is the only male character described. He works at a flower farm and is Catherine's son. Catherine is a strong background influence to the story and is Elizabeth's sister. Elizabeth is probably the main secondary character as she was aiming to become Victoria's adoptive mother before things went sour. Victoria and Elizabeth's relationship is quite interesting to see developed and was for me one of the drivers of the book.

Setting / World Building
Despite being set in the real world, there is actually a subtle sort of magic in this book: the language of flowers. It is a series of messages that are encoded by which flowers you use. When Victoria employs her knowledge in the flower shop, it's as if she is working miracles. People return happy as her flowers effect the change they say in their language. Like fortune telling or other forms of mysticism, this isn't actually real, but the book makes it so. I, of course, have no problem with magic in my books!

Final Thoughts
I don't think this book was for me, but I tried to get what I could out of it. I enjoyed the first part, as the character struggles to find her place in the world. This is diminished on the middle parts where it turns to an unoriginal love story. The last part redeems the book as the main character finds herself again, but it was too little, too late. Maybe other people can enjoy her struggle with romance, pregnancy, and motherhood, but it wasn't what I was looking for.
I did enjoy the language she attributes to flowers and, while whenever I have plants they tend to die quickly (apparently they constantly need to be watered, except when they don't), it is cool to think you could be sending a secret message with your choice of plants.

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