Reviewed: We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

languageofflowers_coverVanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut, The Language of Flowers, made me feel #allthethings. Consequently, I now own the book in paperback and hard cover – and they sit on my shelf right next to the companion guide, A Victorian Flower Dictionary. Even if you judge me, I don’t care. That’s how deep my love for that book went. I blame Anne of Green Gables – I’ve been drawn to orphan stories ever since.

A quick run-down synopsis of the book, from our friends at the publisher:

For fourteen years, Letty Espinosa has worked three jobs around San Francisco to make ends meet while her mother raised her children—Alex, fifteen, and Luna, just six—in their tiny apartment on a forgotten spit of wetlands near the bay. But now Letty’s parents are returning to Mexico, and Letty must step up and become a mother for the first time in her life.
 
Navigating this new terrain is challenging for Letty, especially as Luna desperately misses her grandparents and Alex, who is falling in love with a classmate, is unwilling to give his mother a chance. Letty comes up with a plan to help the family escape the dangerous neighborhood and heartbreaking injustice that have marked their lives, but one wrong move could jeopardize everything she’s worked for and her family’s fragile hopes for the future.

I was nervous to pick up We Never Asked for Wings because of all the reasons above. But I shouldn’t have been. Diffenbaugh is an amazing writer who makes me experience lives I’ve never lived. Her descriptions put me right in the middle of Letty, Alex, and Luna’s apartment. I felt as though I could see the birds Alex watches and the mud-caked Luna playing outside.

Her brilliance is in her characterization – I always care about the characters and that compels me to turn page after page and to avoid the book past a certain hour (otherwise, I’d be up all night reading). However I will say that while The Language of Flowers main character, Victoria, was deeply flawed and broken down by her life circumstances, the main character of this book, Letty, seems to be broken down by her own poor choices. While I understand both motivations, I had less sympathy and didn’t feel as inclined to root for Letty. A few things about the story line troubled me (a few minor spoilers below!):

– When Letty returns to take care of her kids on her own after largely being an absent parent, there’s very little resentment or scrutiny from the kids. Luna’s response might be slightly more understandable since she’s much younger, but Alex’s “good kid” persona wore a little thin in this one area.

– Letty clearly has a problem with alcohol throughout but never seeks treatment or help and works in a bar. Perhaps that’s only my perception or I may have missed something in my eagerness to finish the story–it’s possible that the author didn’t intend this to be an addiction, but merely a statement of coping in the moment. Still, I found some of those scenes (especially – if you’ve read the book – the one with her and Alex near the beginning) horrifying and sad.

– I couldn’t always reconcile the Letty with how she was described. She was an honor student in high school, but someone that driven just gave up on life once an unexpected pregnancy brought her Alex? She made terrible choices with her children but suddenly was the picture of a mother who did things instinctively right? It made for a muddled picture of the main character and I ended up caring about the people in her life more than her.

Bottom line: The quality of writing means that the author has kept my trust enough to read book three in the future. If you’re looking for an engaging, well-paced story with a family dynamic, this would be a good one to read. But if you’re looking to try a book from this author and haven’t read The Language of Flowers, I’d definitely recommend that you pick that book up first.

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