Book Review by Danielle T
I nearly didn’t read this book. I judged it, not by its cover, but by its title. I thought that a book with this title could well:
1. be full of annoying greeting card sentiments, and/or
2. have lots of rapturous attention to botanical detail, and/or
3. make you feel like you can’t get out the other side of a bad watercolour painting.
But I shouldn’t have judged the book this way.
1. The book is not rife with greeting card sentimentality.
The main character is Victoria, who was abandoned by her mother at birth. At the beginning of the novel it is Victoria’s eighteenth birthday, and she is about to be “emancipated”- to leave a group home for girls in the care of the state. Victoria’s social worker picks her up from the home and is keen to give lots of reasons why her survival is unlikely after three months’ worth of rent runs out:
She’d been talking continuously since Fell Street, and the list of reasons my survival seemed unlikey stretched halfway across San Francisco: no high school diploma, no motivation, no support network, a complete lack of social skills. She was asking for my plan, demanding that I think about my own self sufficiency.
I ignored her.
Victoria has been in group homes since she was ten. She had failed to find a foster home willing to adopt her. The social worker’s optimism and care waned each time Victoria was rejected by a foster family:
The description of how I should act lengthened with each placement change, and became more and more different from the child I knew myself to be.
So this is a story of someone who knows herself to be unloveable, and who plans to live a life that pushes any possibility of love away. When Victoria’s rent runs out and she realises she will be homeless, she rises on the morning of her eviction with a sense of “nervous anticipation.” She would live in a park; she would be alone, and surrounded by flowers. It seemed, finally, that I might get exactly what I wanted.
2. You don’t need to be a botanical enthusiast to enjoy the book.
There are a lot of references to flowers, of course. Victoria’s last foster care placement is with Elizabeth, a vineyard owner, who teaches Victoria the old-fashioned way of using plants and flowers to send messages. There is a helpful dictionary at the back, for anyone wishing to revive the practice today. (For example, a currant communicates that thy frown will kill me and a forget-me-not means forget me not.)
But the book’s focus is more on the devastation that can occur when there is a failure to communicate properly. The language of flowers is imperfect, just as communication through everyday interaction is imperfect. You can never be sure how your words and actions will be understood by someone else. People live with many misunderstandings and misapprehensions.
3. Reading this book does not feel like you are trapped in a bad watercolour painting.
This book is not pale and insipid. There are some very vivid, harrowing sections. Victoria has a baby and she tries excruciatingly hard to be a good mother and to break the cycle: Promises and failures, mothers and daughters, indefinitely. And yet she feels that she has a poison inside her that she can’t avoid passing onto her child. I found this section hard to read.
But I liked this book because, ultimately, there is hope. There is hope because Victoria and those around her recognise that they have no choice but to get down to messy business of joining a family back together into an imperfect but loving whole.
Can the unloved learn to love just like everyone else? I hope so.