The Language of Flowers

Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, in her recent interview for the New York Times “By the Book,” suggested that a sign of a good book is one that makes you feel an emotion so deeply, you might be angry with the characters.  She identified Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers as such a book.

“At one point {I was} so mad at the main character, I had to remind myself, ‘Carla, this is fiction.’  But when that happens, you know a story has you hooked.”

9780345525550_p0_v1_s192x300  I identified with Hayden’s description of authors who evoke emotion; recently someone asked why I connected to favorite authors like Anita Shreve, Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, and others.  I look for their books as soon as they are published, often pre-ordering and reading the book as soon as I can download it.  Getting lost in a story, living through the characters, being in another place for a while – sometimes forgetting the story is fiction – all make reading the book so pleasurable.  I’ve read The Language of Flowers, but, like so many books I’ve read, I could not remember the plot, characters, details…  Luckily, my review jogged my memory.

Read my review here.

Diffenbaugh has written another since her first novel in 2011.  She addresses another social issue in We Never Asked for Wings; 32871-v1-197x   it centers on a Mexican-American family headed by Letty, a mother struggling to make a life for her two children in a crumbling housing development outside of San Francisco.  Although written in 2014, the story seems eerily timely.  Have you read it?

What authors “hook” you into their stories?  What books make you forget you are reading fiction?


The Nest

9780062414212_p0_v3_s192x300A million dollar book?  Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney made headlines last year when Harper Collins publishers paid her a million dollar advance for her debut novel The Nest.  With a ten percent commission on sales, the sales expectation is for at least one million copies.

The Nest tells the story of the dysfunctional Plumb family of four brothers and sisters who are counting on an inheritance, held in trust until the youngest turns forty.  Each has already spent most of the money in expectation of receiving a lucrative share. When their mother breaks the trust to bail out the eldest, Leo, the others are determined to get their money back.

Sweeney weaves old grudges together, exposing greed and irresponsibility in the siblings, while using their partners as the balance for trust and selflessness. The setting is New York City and Brooklyn, with familiar landmarks marking the action, but more familiar are the tense moments among the characters.

Each sibling fulfills a well marked role: Leo, the eldest, and “most charming,” who sells his successful publishing business, squandering the proceeds; Bea, “the brightest,” an aspiring writer suffering from writer’s block after the death of her husband; Jack, “the most resourceful,” gay antique dealer whose store never makes a profit; Melody, “the youngest” whose birthday will trigger the release of the money – married to a forbearing husband and the mother of teenage twins, trying to keep up financially and emotionally.  

Sweeney adds subplots to add interest.  The 911 fireman who lost his wife at Ground Zero, finds an expensive Rodin sculpture while sifting through the ashes, and hides it in his apartment until Jack, the antique dealer who recognizes its worth, discovers it.  Stephanie, the literary agent who is in love with Leo,  changes her life by taking him back. And, the catalyst for the dispersal of the trust – the opening scene with a drunken Leo and a young waitress who drive away from a wedding party.  All ends well – sort of – with the old moral of love being more important than money.   

I read the book in a day and enjoyed it; I kept reading, hoping for a good resolution, and Sweeney neatly ties up all the loose strings in the end.  Was it worth a million dollars?  You’ll have to read it to decide for yourself.

According to Jennifer Maloney of The Wall Street Journal, the typical advance for a literary debut novel remains less than $100,000, yet other first time literary novelists have recently made the million dollar club, including:

  • Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s  The Language of Flowers
  • Anton DiSclafani’s The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls
  • Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family
  • Stephanie Clifford’s Everybody Rise

City on Fire by first-time novelist Garth Risk Hallberg received a nearly $2 million advance from Alfred A. Knopf, one of the largest ever for a literary debut.

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