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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: Language of Flowers

On Monday we met for another great book discussion.  This time we tackled a current book club best seller, the debut novel by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, The Language of Flowers.

Here is the synopsis from Reading Group Guides:
A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.
The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.
Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.
Now on to the discussion:
  • We started as usual with our overall opinion of the book.  We had 10 liked, 3 so-so, and 0 disliked.  This is a huge testament to Diffenbaugh since this is her first novel.  But a few of us questioned if she can pull off another novel.  This one was so personal since she is a foster parent herself.
  • Initial so-so comments included:
    • When I began I loved it but lost interest in the final section.  I was disgusted in how she reacted to becoming a mother, especially since she was so nurturing to others making them bouquets with specific flowers.
    • I am tired about reading about troubled teens all of the time; all teens are troubled, but I did find her story interesting.
  •  Initial liked comments included:
    • I thought I wouldn't like it, but I got caught up in the drama and couldn't put it down.
    • I had to read it in bits because it was so heart wrenching, but I loved how skilled the author was at layering the story and holding back information.  The secrets and unknowns built a high level suspense that I got caught up in.
  • These comments led us right into a discussion on the unique story telling style of the novel.  Diffenbaugh unravels the story of Victoria in pieces by alternating chapters (but not always every other one) between the past (the year she turned 10 and moved in with Elizabeth) and the present (from her 18th birthday and liberation from the "system").  One person said it was hard to keep track at first, but the author set up an easy rhythm and she got used to it.  Another person added that while there are no notations as to which time frame a new chapter is in, the author gave clues to orient you right away.  We all agreed that alternating time frames was an excellent way to tell the story.  It gave the novel more suspense because we didn't know the culminating reason as to why Elizabeth and Victoria are separated until 3/4 of the way through the story. It also gave us a better perspective on Victoria's intense rage; for example, the shock of finding out what happened on what was supposed to be the day Elizabeth adopted Victoria made Victoria's anger seem more understandable.
  • We talked for a bit about the foster care system.  We get snippets of Victoria telling us about foster parents who take kids in for the wrong reasons, yet Elizabeth who is troubled but only has love for Victoria, gets her rights to be with Victoria taken away.  We found it refreshing that Meredith, Victoria's case worker, was portrayed well.  Too often you get the bad case worker who doesn't care about the kid. Meredith was always there for Victoria.  Overall we felt the novel provided a fair depiction of the American foster care system.  It had good and bad points to make.
  • By the way, we all were happy that this book never turned into a Victoria searches for her real mother book. In her mind, Elizabeth is that real mother.
  • I asked the group, "What potential do Elizabeth, Renata, and Grant see in Victoria that she has a hard time seeing in herself?"  She is intelligent and has a photographic memory.  She was labelled dumb by traditional schools mostly because of her anger, but she has a gift with flowers that these other people can see in her.  As an outsider in her own family, Renata understood how hard it is when you don't fit in; she excused the outside prickliness of Victoria and was willing to delve deeper.
  • This led someone to ask why Victoria is so empathetic to the needs of others and is able to pick them the perfect flowers to express their feelings, but she has no sense of love or empathy for herself?  The group jumped on this question.  Here are some comments:
    • The flowers were beautiful and made her forget the ugliness of her life.  
    • They can give a message so clearly, without causing pain.  
    • Working with the language of flowers reminded Victoria of her happiest childhood days with Elizabeth.
    • The flowers were easy to understand; Victoria could look them up and catalog their messages.  People, are much harder for her.  She has had very few positive human interactions.
    • Flowers were easier for her to use to express herself than words.
    • Victoria has a deep personal understanding of what most people would call sadness; she realizes sadness has many layers and intricacies.
    • We were worried that when she and Grant discovered there were sometimes 2 meanings for a flower that this would crush her, but her love of the language of flowers prevailed and she showed her strength by working to create her own personal standardization of the language creating a file box of photographs and flower meanings.
  • The final section of the book is titled "Moss."  This is the section where Victoria has her daughter, struggles to care for her, and leaves her with Grant (the baby's father).  Moss not only means "Maternal Love," but it also can grow without roots, something life long orphan Victoria can appreciate. Here are some notes on our discussion of that entire section:
    •  The baby is named Hazel by Grant and Elizabeth because the plant means "reconciliation;" which is exactly what Hazel is able to do--reconcile the family (or at least begin the process of reconciliation).
    • Although Victoria makes awful choices when she gets overwhelmed with the baby, even abandoning her overnight, she is able to pull it together enough to know that the baby needed more than she could give.  By leaving her with Grant (the father) she knows the baby will get what it needs.
    • Victoria wrapping the baby in moss also told Grant that she was leaving the baby because she loved her--maternal love.
  •  We of course talked at length about the language of flowers itself.
    • One person was upset to find out that some of her favorite flowers have terrible meanings.
    • I asked if there was someone in their lives who they would want to test to see if the language worked on.  If so, who and what message would you try to send to them without words, only flowers.  People shared some personal stories.
    • We discussed how in the beginning, before Victoria was able to educate her customers on using flowers to send a message, they didn't know the meanings she was trying to convey, yet the messages still seemed to get through.  So I asked if people believed in the language of flowers.  Is it magic?  We decided that if you believe in it, it will help you.
    • This led us to discussing how Victoria grew her business.  We loved how her business cards were an iris which meant message; how she made a dictionary of flowers for customers to use, and how watching her work allowed us, the readers, to get to understand and know Victoria better, without the author having to explain her.
    • Someone said that entrepreneurs should read this novel for advice on starting a business.
  • We moved the discussion over to Elizabeth.  Why did it take her so long to patch things up with her sister, Catherine.  Victoria made her realize the importance of family, but by then it was too late; Catherine had dementia.  We also felt Elizabeth's unreasonable behavior of not talking to a sister who lived next door also was a foreshadowing of her deeper flaws as a person.  When she is unable to go through with adopting Victoria, we were initially shocked, but ultimately not surprised.  We know she is a damaged person already.
  • The ending is very open.  Victoria comes for Thanksgiving dinner with Grant, Elizabeth, and baby Hazel, but Victoria also tells the reader that she will not stay for long.  She wants to grow her business and learn to be Hazel's mother.  She hopes in time that she can become a more traditional mother, but she is confident that no matter what happens, this baby will have roots, family, and love.  A few people felt like they were sure that Victoria would eventually come around and be a more traditional mother.  But most of us were not sure.  We loved the open ending for this reason.  We were happy not to be forced into an ending.  What we have is a snap shot in the process of an ongoing evolution. How Victoria will evolve is not something anyone can know for sure.
  • This led us to a side discussion on the question of what makes a family?  We decided that one of the things we liked about this book is how the novel gives you lots of example of what a family can be.  We threw out some words that define family: love, connectedness, to be cared for, belonging, to disappoint yet be there for each other, love despite it all, commitment, loss, acceptance without wanting change, unconditional love.  We thought that flowers were also a great symbol for "family."  They need dirt to grow beautiful; they also need nurturing, and when flowers come together they speak the loudest, just as when the people in families come together they are stronger.
  • One participant pointed out the meanings of the main characters' names:
    • Renata means fox and she is smart like a fox
    • Victoria-- victory for herself
    • Grant-- a gift
    • Hazel-- reconciliation (already mentioned)
  • Finally we ended like usual with words or phrases to describe the book as a whole:
    • love
    • family
    • forgiveness
    • second chances
    • growth
    • connectedness
    • belonging
    • maternal love
    • flowers
    • message
    • layered
    • unconditional love
    • non-traditional
    • what connects women
    • foster care system
    • nourishment
    • wounds
    • entrepreneurship
This is a short novel packed full of discussable topics.  I was one of the so-so people (the book was fine but not great, in my opinion), but I loved the discussion.
Readalikes: For people who want more books on the language of flowers and what it all means, click here.  For readers who want more books fiction or nonfiction about the foster care system in America, click here.  Bestselling author, Paula McClain also has a memoir about her childhood in the foster care system called Like Family.

In terms of fiction readalikes there are 2 books we read previously in book club which had similar themes of secrets, family, and forgiveness and were also told with an alternating past and present storyline: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jaime Ford and Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (use links to access those discussion recap posts).  Although the plots of these 3 books are widely different, the style, themes and tones are strikingly similar. To help more readers, I also entered these readalike options into NoveList,

A few more specific readalikes about troubled teens, mother daughter-relationships, and foster care that are also popular book discussion titles include:

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