Vanessa Diffenbaugh seems to have written her first novel with book clubs in mind. It’s narrated by Victoria Jones, a young woman who spent her childhood neglected and abused in a series of foster homes. Now emancipated from the care of the state, she finds love, but feels unworthy. Victoria is only able to share her true feelings through her knowledge of the Victorian language of flowers, where each plant has a secret meaning. In spite of this sappy premise, The Language Of Flowers starts strong. Diffenbaugh drew on her own experiences as a foster mother to write the novel, but it feels like she only had so many ideas, and had to stretch them to make her page count. The mystery at the heart of the story wears thin as Diffenbaugh drags it out too long, and stretches it with unnecessary padding.
The story is split between the present and eight years in the past, when Victoria is getting her last shot at being adopted before being moved to a group home. An endlessly patient vineyard owner named Elizabeth takes her in. While it seems Victoria has finally gotten the perfect life, it’s clear from the modern chapters that Elizabeth does not adopt her, and that Victoria nurses some deep shame about her time at Elizabeth’s home. While there are some surprises along the way, it’s easy to piece together the general gist of what happened early enough that the plodding progress becomes frustrating.
In both timelines, Victoria is an angry, bitter youth. Though she makes herself hard to like, she’s bombarded by the kindness of others. Renata, a flower-shop owner, takes pity on the homeless young woman with an obvious talent for botany and gives her a job and a home. A young man who shares Victoria’s passion for flowers falls in love with her. But Victoria can’t accept the good in her life because of her past crime, and her one-note thought processes become grating.
Diffenbaugh spends a huge percentage of her story describing flowers, sharing their looks, secret meanings, and growing seasons. It’s lovely material, but it seems that Diffenbaugh may understand more about what makes a flower attractive than a character. Most of her characters seem too much like delicate blooms, wilting under the weight of despair, mental illness, self-loathing, and responsibility. Without strong characters to anchor the story, the weaknesses of the contrived plot and narrative style become even more pronounced.