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I feel it's only fair to warn you, dear reader, that Vanessa Diffenbaugh's central character, Victoria Jones, is going to break your heart three ways from Sunday. She's also going to make you want to pick her up, shake her and scream, why can’t you let yourself be happy? But for Victoria, the answer is as complex as the question is simple. She's spent her childhood ricocheting through countless foster and group homes, and the experience has left her in pieces. Painfully isolated and deeply mistrustful, she cares only about flowers and their meanings. She herself is like a thistle, a wall of hard-earned thorns.
When we first encounter Victoria, it's the day of her emancipation from foster care, her eighteenth birthday. "Emancipation" couldn't be a more ironic word for this moment. For Victoria, as for most foster care survivors—-myself included—-freedom really means free fall. She has nowhere to go, no resources, no one who cares about her. She ends up sleeping in a public park, tending a garden of pilfered blossoms, and living on her wits. It's only when a local florist sees Victoria's special way with flowers that she is given a means to survive. But survival is just the beginning. The more critical question is will Victoria let herself love and be loved?
The storyline weaves skillfully between the heavy burden of Victoria's childhood—-her time with Elizabeth, the foster mother who taught her the language of flowers and also wounded her more deeply than Victoria can bear to remember—-and the gauntlet of her present relationship with Grant, a flower vendor who's irrevocably linked to the darkest secret of her past. At its core, The Language of Flowers is a meditation on redemption, and on how even the most profoundly damaged might learn to forgive and be forgiven. By opening up Victoria's very difficult inner world to us, Vanessa Diffenbaugh shows us a corner of experience hidden to most, and with an astonishing degree of insight and compassion. So hold on, and keep the tissue box nearby. This is a book you won’t soon forget. --Paula McLain
Q: What is the language of flowers?
A: The Victorian language of flowers began with the publication of Le Language des Fleurs, written by Charlotte de Latour and printed in Paris in 1819. To create the book--which was a list of flowers and their meanings--de Latour gathered references to flower symbolism throughout poetry, ancient mythology and even medicine. The book spawned the science known as floriography, and between 1830 and 1880, hundreds of similar floral dictionaries were printed in Europe and America.
In The Language of Flowers, Victoria learns about this language as a young girl from her prospective adoptive mother Elizabeth. Elizabeth tells her that years ago, people communicated through flowers; and if a man gave a young lady a bouquet of flowers, she would race home and try to decode it like a secret message. So he would have to choose his flowers carefully.
I understand Victoria’s impulse completely, and I included a dictionary in the back of the book for the same reason. If readers are inspired to send messages through flowers, I wanted there to be a complete, concise, relevant and consistent list of meanings for modern communication.
To love is difficult. To be a mother is difficult. To be a mother, alone, with few financial resources and no emotional support, is so difficult as to be nearly impossible. Yet society expects us to be able to do it, and as mothers, we expect ourselves to be able to do it as well. Our standards for motherhood are so high that many of us harbor intense, secret guilt for every harsh word we speak to our children; every negative thought that enters our minds. The pressure is so powerful that many of us never speak aloud about our challenges--especially emotional ones--because to do so would be to risk being viewed as a failure or, worse, a danger to the very children we love more than anything in the world.
With Victoria and Elizabeth, I hope to allow the reader a window inside the minds of mothers who are trying to do what is best for their children but who lack the support, resources, and/or self-confidence to succeed. The results are heartbreaking for so many mothers who find themselves unable to raise their children. It is my belief that we could prevent much child abuse and neglect if we as a society recognized the intense challenge of motherhood and offered more support for mothers who want desperately to love and care for their children.
Victoria is clearly different. She is angry and afraid, yet desperately hopeful; qualities I saw in many of the young people I worked with throughout the years. Though Victoria is entirely fictional, I did draw inspiration in bits and pieces from foster children I have known. One young woman in particular, who my husband and I mentored many years ago, was fiery and focused and distrusting and unpredictable in a manner similar to Victoria. Her history was intense: a number on her birth certificate where a name should have been; more foster homes than she could count. Still, she was resilient, beautiful, smart, and funny. We loved her completely, and she did her best to sabotage it, over and over again. To this day my husband and I regret that we couldn’t find a way to connect with her and become the stable parents she deserved.
Praise for The Language of Flowers
"Instantly enchanting…. [Diffenbaugh] is the best new writer of the year." -Elle
“I would like to hand Vanessa Diffenbaugh a bouquet of bouvardia (enthusiasm), gladiolus (you pierce my heart) and lisianthus (appreciation). In this original and brilliant first novel, Diffenbaugh has united her fascination with the language of flowers—a long-forgotten and mysterious way of communication—with her firsthand knowledge of the travails of the foster-care system. … This novel is both enchanting and cruel, full of beauty and anger. Diffenbaugh is a talented writer and a mesmerizing storyteller. She includes a flower dictionary in case we want to use the language ourselves. And there is one more sprig I should add to her bouquet: a single pink carnation (I will never forget you).”—Washington Post
"A fascinating debut…. Diffenbaugh clearly knows both the human heart and her plants, and she keeps us rooting for the damaged Victoria." -O Magazine
"Diffenbaugh effortlessly spins this enchanting tale, making even her prickly protagonist impossible not to love."--Entertainment Weekly
“An unexpectedly beautiful book about an ugly subject: children who grow up without families, and what becomes of them in the absence of unconditional love...Jane Eyre for 2011.” –The San Francisco Chronicle
"(T)he first-time novelist and real-life foster mother masterfully mixes sweet and tart to create a story that is devastating, yes, and hopeful, but also surprisingly, satisfyingly real."--Redbook
“A moving and beautifully written portrayal of the frailty – and the hardness – of the human spirit”. –The Daily Telegraph (UK)
“Lucid and lovely” –The Wall Street Journal
“The Language of Flowers is a warm, satisfying, feel-good read.”—Metro
“A sensory feast of flowers and their symbolic meaning, this tale – seen through the eyes of foster care survivor Victoria – is uniquely compelling.” --ASOS
“Enchanting, ennobling, and powerfully engaging, Diffenbaugh’s artfully accomplished debut novel lends poignant testimony to the multitude of mysteries held in the human heart.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Fans of Janet Fitch’s White Oleander will enjoy this solid and well-written debut, which is also certain to be a hit with book clubs.”—Library Journal (starred review)
"Vanessa Diffenbaugh delivers a first-class, literary forget-me-not."--King Features
"A compelling story about spiritual hunger and the power of nature—and human connection—to help heal hearts."--Bookpage
“Uses green, growing things to say something fresh and special about human life.”—Chicago Tribune"Elegantly written...a true “page-turner”."--Chicago Sun-Times
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. It was great from start to end. I would definitely recommend this book to everyone I know.Published 19 hours ago by Kim
I really liked this book and enjoyed the diff meanings of the flowers as they came up through the book. It was a good story.Published 1 day ago by sueg
As a gardener I loved the explanations of the language of flowersPublished 1 day ago by Lola Patricia Moir
our book club read this - great story about the flower meanings and too bad we have lost that today
wish I had known about the flowery dictionary in the back when I started... Read more
Although I didn't really like the main character, Victoria, until the end of the book, I liked the story as a whole. Read morePublished 4 days ago by Domonique E. Burke
This was a wonderful story, told in a beautiful and creative way. There were so many characters to love -- not the case in so many novels written these days. Read morePublished 4 days ago by KATHERINE DONOVAN-SHERPA