The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Victoria Jones has spent the first eighteen years of her life being moved from one foster home and care home to another. On her eighteenth birthday she is released from the care system and sent out into the world with no qualifications and no skills other than her knowledge of flowers and what they mean. When Victoria is offered a job as a florist’s assistant she finally has a chance to turn her life around, but first she needs to confront a secret from her past.

Interspersed with this storyline, we are given flashbacks to an earlier period in Victoria’s life, when she was nine years old and living with one of her foster parents, Elizabeth. There are hints that something traumatic happened during this time, but we don’t find out what it was until near the end of the book. I liked the way the story was told in short, alternating chapters, divided almost equally between Victoria’s present and her past because structuring the novel in this way meant we could slowly piece together a vivid picture of Victoria and the moments that shaped her life. It also helped sustain some suspense and mystery throughout the book, making us wonder exactly what happened while Victoria was living with Elizabeth.

I did enjoy The Language of Flowers, but I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if Victoria had been a character I had liked or could relate to in any way. I can appreciate that the author was trying to show the effects of a troubled childhood on a person’s emotions and social interactions, and I did sympathise with Victoria – I could see why she was so insecure and why she was afraid to get too close to anyone. I don’t really know anything about the US foster care system (or fostering in general) and while I’m sure the majority of foster parents genuinely want to give the child in their care a loving home, it’s sad to think there might really be children like Victoria who have had some bad experiences. So I could understand why Victoria behaved the way she did, but she continued to frustrate me throughout the entire book and I never quite managed to connect with her at all.

On a more positive note, I did love the ‘language of flowers’ aspect of the book. I really like the idea of people secretly communicating using flowers. I thought the ways in which Vanessa Diffenbaugh incorporated the flower meanings into the novel were cleverly done and as I have absolutely no knowledge of the subject myself, I appreciated the inclusion of Victoria’s Flower Dictionary at the back of the book!

For me, then, I think The Language of Flowers was a book where I liked the concept of the story better than the story itself. Don’t let me put you off reading it though, because I know not all readers will have the problem I had with Victoria – and apart from that, this was not a bad book at all.

Review: The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

Who would have thought that a book about growing tulips could be so exciting? And yet Alexandre Dumas managed to write a compelling page turner based on that very subject. Dumas became one of my favourite authors a few years ago when I read The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers but I had not read any of his lesser-known works until now. I regret not reading The Black Tulip sooner because I enjoyed it almost as much as the two books I’ve just mentioned.

The book is set in seventeenth century Holland and begins with the violent murders of John and Cornelius De Witt, suspected of conspiring against the young Stadtholder, William of Orange. Our hero is the fictional godson of Cornelius De Witt, who is also called Cornelius. Cornelius Van Baerle is a keen tulip-fancier whose biggest goal in life is to produce the world’s first black tulip. However, Van Baerle is not the only tulip-grower in the race for the Grand Black Tulip – and his rival Isaac Boxtel will stop at nothing to get there first!

The first few chapters put the novel in historical context and will be slightly challenging to anyone like myself, who doesn’t have much knowledge of Dutch history, but if you read carefully and refer to the notes it’s easy enough to follow. As soon as Dumas finishes setting the scene, the story explodes into action and never stops until the final page, taking us on a journey through the full range of human emotions – love, hatred, greed, loyalty, jealousy and obsession.

Rosa, the only female character in the book, is a jailer’s daughter who falls in love with Cornelius and finds herself having to compete with the tulip for his affections. Despite making a few remarks of the “I am but a woman” variety she is otherwise a strong and quick-thinking character who does what she knows is right, even if it means going against the wishes of Cornelius or her father. The starring role in the story, though, goes to the elusive black tulip itself.

As you might have guessed, I really loved this book. If you enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo there’s a good chance that you’ll like this one too, as it’s very similar in writing style, pace and even several plot elements. It could almost be described as a shorter, less epic, less complex version of The Count.

Highly recommended

Publisher: OUP (Oxford World’s Classics)/Year: 2008 (originally published 1850)/Pages: 258/Source: Library book