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The Language of Flowers: A Novel [Paperback]

Vanessa Diffenbaugh
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2,963 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.



Amazon Exclusive: Paula McLain Reviews The Language of Flowers

Paula McLain is the New York Times best-selling author of The Paris Wife. She grew up in Fresno, California where, after being abandoned by both parents, she spent fourteen years in the foster care system. A graduate of the MFA program at The University of Michigan, she has taught literature and creative writing for many years, and currently lives with her children in Cleveland, Ohio.

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




Author Q and A with Vanessa Diffenbaugh

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.


Q: Where did you come up with the idea to have Victoria express herself through flowers?
A: I’ve always loved the language of flowers. I discovered Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers in a used bookstore when I was 16, and couldn’t believe it was such a well-kept secret. How could something so beautiful and romantic be virtually unknown? When I started thinking about the book I wanted to write, Victoria and the language of flowers came to me simultaneously. I liked the complication of a young woman who has trouble connecting with others communicating through a forgotten language that almost no one understands.

Q: Why does Victoria decide to create her own flower dictionary, and what role does it come to play in the novel?
A: In many ways, Victoria exists entirely on the periphery of society. So much is out of the scope of her understanding--how to get a job, how to make a friend, even how to have a conversation. But in the world of flowers, with their predictable growing habits and "non-negotiable" meanings, Victoria feels safe, comfortable, even at home. All this changes when she learns that there is more than one definition for the yellow rose--and then, through research, realizes there is more than one definition for almost every flower. She feels her grasp on the one aspect of life she believed to be solid dissolving away beneath her. In an effort to "re-order" the universe, Victoria begins to photograph and create her own dictionary, determined to never have a flower-inspired miscommunication. She decides to share that information with others--a decision that brings with it the possibility of love, connection, career, and community.

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.


Q: How does The Language of Flowers challenge and reconfigure our concepts of family and motherhood?
A: One of my favorite books is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In it, Rilke writes: "It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation."

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.


Q: The Language of Flowers sheds light on the foster care system in our country, something with which many of us are not intimately acquainted. Did you always know you wanted to write a story about a foster child?
A: I’ve always had a passion for working with young people. As my work began to focus on youth in foster care--and I eventually became a foster parent myself--I became aware of the incredible injustice of the foster care system in our country: children moving from home to home, being separated from siblings, and then being released into the world on their eighteenth birthday with little support or services. Moreover, I realized that this injustice was happening virtually unnoticed. The same sensationalized stories appear in the media over and over again: violent kids, greedy foster parents, the occasional horrific child death or romanticized adoption--but the true story of life inside the system is one that is much more complex and emotional--and it is a story that is rarely told. Foster children and foster parents, like children and adults everywhere, are trying to love and be loved, and to do the best they can with the emotional and physical resources they have. Victoria is a character that people can connect with on an emotional level--at her best and at her worst--which I hope gives readers a deeper understanding of the realities of foster care.

Q: Victoria is such a complex and memorable character. She has so much to contribute to the world, but has so much trouble with love and forgiveness, particularly toward herself. Is she based on someone you know or have known in real life?
A: People often ask me if I drew inspiration for the character of Victoria from our foster son Tre’von, but Victoria is about as different from Tre’von as two people could ever be. Tre’von’s strength is his openness--he has a quick smile, a big heart, and a social grace that puts everyone around him at ease. At fourteen, running away from home barefoot on a cold January night, he had the wisdom and sense of self-preservation to knock on the door of the nearest fire station. When he was placed in foster care, he immediately began to reach out to his teachers and his principal, creating around himself a protective community of love and support.

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.


Q: The notion of second chances plays a major role in The Language of Flowers for many of the characters. Does this in any way relate to your personal advocacy work with emancipating foster youth?
A: As my four-year old daughter says to me on a regular basis: "Mommy, you aren’t perfect." We all make mistakes, and we all need second chances. For youth in foster care, these mistakes are often purposeful--if not consciously so; a way to test the strength of a bond and establish trust in a new parent. A friend of mine called recently, after a year of mentoring a sixteen year-old boy, completely distraught. The young man had lied to him, and it was a major lie, one that put him in danger. My friend, in his anger, said things he regretted. My response was this: good. Your response might not have been perfect, but it was real and your concern was clear. As long as he was still committed to the young man (which he was), it didn’t so much matter what my friend had said or done; what mattered was what he did next. It mattered that he showed his mentee, through words and actions, that he still loved him, and that the young man’s mistake couldn’t change that.

Q: The Language of Flowers is one of those stories that will stay with its readers for a very long time. What lasting impression do you wish the book to leave them?
I believe that people are spurred into action when they both see the injustice of a situation and the possibility for change. With The Language of Flowers I tried to write a book that was honest and true, but hopeful enough to inspire people to act. Each year, nearly 20,000 young people emancipate from the foster care system, many of them with nowhere to go and no one to go to for support. I am launching a non-profit with the goal to connect every emancipating foster child to a community--a book club, a women’s club, a church group--to support them through the transition to adulthood and beyond. It is my hope that readers everywhere will read my book and become inspired to partner with emancipating young people in their own communities.

Q: If you were to represent yourself with a bouquet, which flowers would you choose and why?
A: Helioptrope (devoted affection), Black-Eyed Susan (justice), Hawthorn (hope), Liatris (I will try again), Lisianthus (appreciation), and Moss (maternal love). These flowers represent how I am--devoted, affectionate, maternal, and grateful--and also how I want to be--hopeful, determined, and constantly working for justice. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“Instantly entrancing.”—Elle
 
“[An] original and brilliant first novel . . . a mesmerizing storyteller . . . I would like to hand Vanessa Diffenbaugh a bouquet of bouvardia (enthusiasm), gladiolus (you pierce my heart) and lisianthus (appreciation). . . . And there is one more sprig I should add to her bouquet: a single pink carnation (I will never forget you).”—Brigitte Weeks, The Washington Post
 
“A captivating novel in which a single sprig of rosemary speaks louder than words . . . The Language of Flowers deftly weaves the sweetness of newfound love with the heartache of past mistakes. . . . [It] will certainly change how you choose your next bouquet.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“Fascinating . . . Diffenbaugh clearly knows both the human heart and her plants, and she keeps us rooting for the damaged Victoria.”—O: The Oprah Magazine (book of the week)
 
“Diffenbaugh effortlessly spins this enchanting tale, making even her prickly protagonist impossible not to love.”—Entertainment Weekly
 
“Compelling . . . immensely engaging . . . unabashedly romantic . . . an emotional arc of almost unbearable poignance.”—The Boston Globe

About the Author

Vanessa Diffenbaugh was born in San Francisco and raised in Chico, California.  After studying art education at Stanford University, she went on to teach at-risk youth in East Palo Alto and Sacramento.  She and her husband, PK, have four children: Donovan, 24, Tre'von, 22, Chela, 7, and Miles, 6.  Inspired by her own experience as a foster parent, her first novel, The Language of Flowers, has been translated into more than 40 languages.  Following the success of her novel, Diffenbaugh co-founded Camellia Network, whose mission is to create a national network that connects every youth aging out of foster care to the critical resources, opportunities, and the support they need to thrive in adulthood. 
 

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1.

For eight years I dreamed of fire. Trees ignited as I passed them; oceans burned. The sugary smoke settled in my hair as I slept, the scent like a cloud left on my pillow as I rose. Even so, the moment my mattress started to burn, I bolted awake. The sharp, chemical smell was nothing like the hazy syrup of my dreams; the two were as different as Indian and Carolina jasmine, separation and attachment. They could not be confused.

Standing in the middle of the room, I located the source of the fire. A neat row of wooden matches lined the foot of the bed. They ignited, one after the next, a glowing picket fence across the piped edging. Watching them light, I felt a terror unequal to the size of the flickering flames, and for a paralyzing moment I was ten years old again, desperate and hopeful in a way I had never been before and would never be again.

But the bare synthetic mattress did not ignite like the thistle had in late October. It smoldered, and then the fire went out.

It was my eighteenth birthday.

In the living room, a row of fidgeting girls sat on the sagging couch. Their eyes scanned my body and settled on my bare, unburned feet. One girl looked relieved; another disappointed. If I’d been staying another week, I would have remembered each expression. I would have retaliated with rusty nails in the soles of shoes or small pebbles in bowls of chili. Once, I’d held the end of a glowing metal clothes hanger to a sleeping roommate’s shoulder, for an offense less severe than arson.

But in an hour, I’d be gone. The girls knew this, every one.

From the center of the couch, a girl stood up. She looked young—?fifteen, sixteen at most—and was pretty in a way I didn’t see much of: good posture, clear skin, new clothes. I didn’t immediately recognize her, but when she crossed the room there was something familiar about the way she walked, arms bent and aggressive. Though she’d just moved in, she was not a stranger; it struck me that I’d lived with her before, in the years after Elizabeth, when I was at my most angry and violent.

Inches from my body, she stopped, her chin jutting into the space between us.

“The fire,” she said evenly, “was from all of us. Happy birthday.”

Behind her, the row of girls on the couch squirmed. A hood was pulled up, a blanket wrapped tighter. Morning light flickered across a line of lowered eyes, and the girls looked suddenly young, trapped. The only ways out of a group home like this one were to run away, age out, or be institutionalized. Level 14 kids weren’t adopted; they rarely, if ever, went home. These girls knew their prospects. In their eyes was nothing but fear: of me, of their housemates, of the life they had earned or been given. I felt an unexpected rush of pity. I was leaving; they had no choice but to stay.

I tried to push my way toward the door, but the girl stepped to the side, blocking my path.

“Move,” I said.

A young woman working the night shift poked her head out of the kitchen. She was probably not yet twenty, and more terrified of me than any of the girls in the room.

“Please,” she said, her voice begging. “This is her last morning. Just let her go.”

I waited, ready, as the girl before me pulled her stomach in, fists clenched tight. But after a moment, she shook her head and turned away. I walked around her.

I had an hour before Meredith would come for me. Opening the front door, I stepped outside. It was a foggy San Francisco morning, the concrete porch cool on my bare feet. I paused, thinking. I’d planned to gather a response for the girls, something biting and hateful, but I felt strangely forgiving. Maybe it was because I was eighteen, because, all at once, it was over for me, that I was able to feel tenderness toward their crime. Before I left, I wanted to say something to combat the fear in their eyes.

Walking down Fell, I turned onto Market. My steps slowed as I reached a busy intersection, unsure of where to go. Any other day I would have plucked annuals from Duboce Park, scoured the overgrown lot at Page and Buchanan, or stolen herbs from the neighborhood market. For most of a decade I’d spent every spare moment memorizing the meanings and scientific descriptions of individual flowers, but the knowledge went mostly unutilized. I used the same flowers again and again: a bouquet of marigold, grief; a bucket of thistle, misanthropy; a pinch of dried basil, hate. Only occasionally did my communication vary: a pocketful of red carnations for the judge when I realized I would never go back to the vineyard, and peony for Meredith, as often as I could find it. Now, searching Market Street for a florist, I scoured my mental dictionary.

After three blocks I came to a liquor store, where paper-wrapped bouquets wilted in buckets under the barred windows. I paused in front of the store. They were mostly mixed arrangements, their messages conflicting. The selection of solid bouquets was small: standard roses in red and pink, a wilting bunch of striped carnations, and, bursting from its paper cone, a cluster of purple dahlias. Dignity. Immediately, I knew it was the message I wanted to give. Turning my back to the angled mirror above the door, I tucked the flowers inside my coat and ran.

I was out of breath by the time I returned to the house. The living room was empty, and I stepped inside to unwrap the dahlias. The flowers were perfect starbursts, layers of white-tipped purple petals unfurling from tight buds of a center. Biting off an elastic band, I detangled the stems. The girls would never understand the meaning of the dahlias (the meaning itself an ambiguous statement of encouragement); even so, I felt an unfamiliar lightness as I paced the long hall, slipping a stem under each closed bedroom door.

The remaining flowers I gave to the young woman who’d worked the night shift. She was standing by the kitchen window, waiting for her replacement.

“Thank you,” she said when I handed her the bouquet, confusion in her voice. She twirled the stiff stems between her palms.

Meredith arrived at ten o’clock, as she’d told me she would. I waited on the front porch, a cardboard box balanced on my thighs. In eighteen years I’d collected mostly books: the Dictionary of Flowers and Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers, both sent to me by Elizabeth a month after I left her home; botany textbooks from libraries all over the East Bay; thin paperback volumes of Victorian poetry stolen from quiet bookstores. Stacks of folded clothes covered the books, a collection of found and stolen items, some that fit, many that did not. Meredith was taking me to The Gathering House, a transitional home in the Outer Sunset. I’d been on the waiting list since I was ten.

“Happy birthday,” Meredith said as I put my box on the backseat of her county car. I didn’t say anything. We both knew that it might or might not have been my birthday. My first court report listed my age as approximately three weeks; my birth date and location were unknown, as were my biological parents. August 1 had been chosen for purposes of emancipation, not celebration.

I slunk into the front seat next to Meredith and closed the door, waiting for her to pull away from the curb. Her acrylic fingernails tapped against the steering wheel. I buckled my seat belt. Still, the car did not move. I turned to face Meredith. I had not changed out of my pajamas, and I pulled my flannel-covered knees up to my chest and wrapped my jacket around my legs. My eyes scanned the roof of Meredith’s car as I waited for her to speak.

“Well, are you ready?” she asked.

I shrugged.

“This is it, you know,” she said. “Your life starts here. No one to blame but yourself from here on out.”

Meredith Combs, the social worker responsible for selecting the stream of adoptive families that gave me back, wanted to talk to me about blame.
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