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Common thistle represents misantrophy.

And with that same word, we also sum up Victoria Jones, our book’s heroine. Victoria is a product of the foster care system. The book opens at a crucial point in her young life, as she prepares to move out of her last group home, having reached the age of emancipation at eighteen. Meredith, the social worker who has been in charge of her case throughout countless failed foster family placements, drives her to San Francisco and leaves her at the Gathering House, a transitional home for girls like herself. She has three months rent-free in which to find herself a job, after which it’s either she pay up or pack up.

But Victoria doesn’t even have a high school diploma, nor does she possess the motivation to go out in search of gainful employment. In fact, she comes across as singularly apathetic to the precariousness of her situation. When the inevitable happens at the end of three months, Victoria becomes a homeless vagrant, living in a nearby park and scrounging scraps off cafe tables for food. It is only through sheer luck that she eventually finds a job working for Renata, the owner of Bloom, the neighborhood flower shop. For while Victoria’s lack of a high school education should have consigned her to a life of waiting tables or bagging groceries, she does, in fact, know her flowers. How she came about this knowledge is revealed soon enough when Victoria meets Grant, one of Renata’s suppliers at the flower market who also inexplicably turns out to be a ghost from Victoria’s past.

Victoria’s story unfolds via short alternating chapters that switch between a young ten year old Victoria and her present-day self. I think that this was a good strategy on the author’s part, as the back story is revealed slowly in conjunction with what Victoria is currently experiencing in the present. It helps justify Victoria’s actions, especially those that would seem otherwise strange of unfathomable to someone who has not undergone her experiences as a foster child. Because the sad fact is that Victoria is not a loveable character. Throughout the book she showed flashes of self-centeredness and a strong defeatist streak that made it very difficult for me to connect with her as a person, were it not for those alternating chapters from her past that acted on me in almost the same way that an antihistamine would counteract an allergy.

It’s a great measure of the author’s skill in character development that I was still rooting for Victoria despite this. However, so much attention was paid to making her a more well-rounded character that some of the secondary characters suffered as a result. I feel that Grant in particular was short-changed, since at times he comes across almost as a cardboard cutout love interest inserted there to give Victoria someone to angst over, rather than a person whose own past actually intersected Victoria’s at crucial moments, and whose present is becoming increasingly tangled with hers. Since Grant and his family are integral players in Victoria’s past, it would have been nice to have been given more glimpses inside his head. Grant loves Victoria with an unwavering love, but given how selfish and immature Victoria is, particularly at the beginning, it’s very hard for me to understand why.

As if the title isn’t clue enough, the Victorian “Language of Flowers”  figures prominently into the story. Victoria uses flowers to convey her feelings and sentiments the way others would use words or facial expressions. It’s safer for her this way, because by our time the language of flowers has fallen into disuse, so nobody will understand what she’s saying unless she chooses to tell them what she means. Elizabeth, who had been Victoria’s last foster mother when she reached the age of ten, and also one of the biggest influences of her young life, had told her that the language of flowers was non-negotiable. As Victoria’s relationship with Grant develops, they both discover that this statement is not true, and set about to creating their own flower dictionary so they’ll never disagree over the meanings again. Prior to this, Victoria had already been using her knowledge of flowers to change the lives of customers from Renata’s shop.

Given the strong correlation that the author had placed so far between matching the correct flowers with the outcome desired, it became surprisingly tedious for me to keep waiting for the time when Victoria’s own life would experience the same dramatic changes in world view that her customers did. I wanted Victoria to have her happily ever after, but her own feelings of inadequacy and a BIG SECRET with regard to her past kept holding her back, and that trope became old really fast. By the time Victoria became reconciled with her past, I was ready to breathe a sigh of relief and shout “FINALLY!”

I can understand why this book received so much hype from mainstream reviews (it was a book-of-the-week pick in Oprah’s blog as well). I appreciate the fact that it’s brought a largely forgotten but intensely romantic art back into the spotlight, especially since I actually own a facsimile edition of Kate Greenaway’s 1884 picture book, Language of Flowers (and yes, I’ve owned my copy of the Greenaway book for quite a while before I heard about Ms. Diffenbaugh’s novel). It’s a unique first novel with beautifully sensual descriptions of flowers and food and locations (Grant’s flower farm and Elizabeth’s vineyard are definitely places that I would want to visit in real life).  It’s a powerful story about love and relationships, forgiveness and second chances. But its impact was lessened (at least for me) by a dragging plot which was aggravated by a heroine who took far too long to come to terms with herself and grow up. She’s like a hothouse flower who literally has to be forced to unfurl her petals by encountering a series of uncontrollable physically and emotionally painful events. I know that there’s a saying about life being about the journey and not the destination, but in Victoria’s case the emotional journey seemed to rely a bit too much on plot contrivances to keep the interest going.

P.S. The cover I posted on top is from the U.K. edition. I’m rather particular about book covers (more on that in a future post), and the image of the girl holding up a photo of a rose to cover her lips definitely brings to mind the title of the book much better than the rather bland American edition cover —————————–>

Although, according to Victoria’s flower dictionary (which is included at the end of the book), pink roses mean grace, which I saw very little of in Victoria. Misguided strength and a tenacity to rise up against all odds alone, yes. But grace?