Just as I was beginning to fret about the lack of good women writers, came along Vanessa Diffenbaugh with a tale so compelling that I willingly took back all my words. I picked up The Language of Flowers on my husband, Viren’s insistence. Our reading tastes are just about as similar as chalk and cheese, and I would never have considered reading a book with a title like that, assuming it had something to do with nature. The book indeed had a lot to do with nature, but it also had intrigue in equal measure. The latter satiated my taste, while the former, Viren’s. But the story binds these elements as seamlessly as a flower with its fragrance, and proceeds to tell the reader about the magical floral tongue.
The Language of Flowers is the story of Victoria, an orphan, who learns the primal message of love through flowers. The book resurrects ideas from Victorian era florigraphy, and unravels its many forgotten secrets through the flower-loving Victoria. But the flower-loving protagonist is also a mankind-hating one, at least when we first meet her in a community house for orphans on her 18th birthday. Victoria is a difficult and defiant child, who knows no better, growing up with a string of rejections and returns from several foster homes. She gives the hard world a deserved hard time, until she meets her match in Elizabeth. Elizabeth is determined in her love as Victoria is in her hatred. Elizabeth almost wins 10-year-old Victoria over, but circumstances pull them apart.
A parallel storyline has Victoria as a young woman leaving the community home, fighting hunger and homelessness until she lands a job as a florist’s assistant. Her knowledge of and instinct about flowers helps put right people’s pasts, and offers beautiful promises to their futures. Her fame spreads, even as she uses flora to beautify people’s lives in more ways than one. One learns how Acacia stands for secret love, Basil for hate, pink Carnations for eternal remembrance, Dahlia for dignity, Oak leaves for friendship and many others. While bringing people together through the language of flowers, she yet remains firmly aloof – her mistrust of humankind guiding all her relationships.
Even when Victoria meets Grant, a man who understands florigraphy and loves her, she stays apart. When they eventually come close and Victoria gets pregnant, she runs away, fearing she will destroy the relationship, as she has done several times in the past. But a switch in her flips when she becomes a mother, and gradually love blooms in Victoria’s bosom.
All the characters in this book are extensions of Victoria – people with tough pasts, their love dammed in one way or another. But isn’t that true of us all? We are attracted to and finally surround ourselves with people who are like us, and will therefore understand us. Every character is deep, intense and broody, and plays their part – no frills. Major characters like Grant, Elizabeth, Meredith, Renata, and Heather and minor ones like Natalia, Mother Ruby, and Marlena stay in their mantles, never trespassing Victoria’s fiercely guarded private space. The language is terse, and throughout the book I kept marveling at how much was being conveyed and how little was being said. The content is emotional from the word Go!, but Victoria’s struggle with her new parenthood is what wrenched my gut the most, for personal reasons. Even in its ardent emotionality, it is extremely dignified – a rare quality in a book. Read it for these many reasons, and find some more of your own.