- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Reviewer’s note: One of my favorite novels of 2011, “The Language of Flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, is now available in a $16.00 trade paperback from Ballantine for $16.00. It’s currently 15th on the N.Y. Times trade paperback fiction list and has been on the list for 22 weeks. That’s word of mouth!
Here’s my review of the hardback edition, as posted Sept. 1, 2011, with publication information changed to reflect the April 2012 trade paperback release. — David M. Kinchen
I wanted to tell her that I had never loved anyone, and ask her to explain how a woman incapable of giving love could ever be expected to be a mother, a good one. —Victoria
Life has a way of mutilating, spindling and stapling us, but we’re a resilient species, as Vanessa Diffenbaugh demonstrates in her powerful and elegant debut novel “The Language of Flowers” (Ballantine Books, 352 pages, $16.00).
Each chapter toggles between Victoria Jones’ life at nine and ten years of age and today at age 18 and older, when she’s been emancipated from the foster care system. We’re afforded a look at Victoria as a sensitive girl who can’t stand to be touched — physically and emotionally.
In spite — or maybe because of this — we find ourselves rooting for Victoria, as well as the rest of the flawed but true to life characters in the book: Grant, Elizabeth, Renata, Mother Ruby, Marlena and even tough love social worker Meredith.
Victoria’s far from perfect — there are times when we want to reach inside the novel and grab her by the shoulders and try to shake some sense into her — but this is understandable in a person who has been in the foster care system all her life.
Of all the strains of living in this system, perhaps those she experienced with foster care provider Elizabeth, who owns a vineyard outside San Francisco, affect her the most. She comes so close to bonding, but when the time comes for decision making, Elizabeth turns out to be just as much of a “no toucher” as Victoria.
While with Elizabeth and her nephew Grant, the son of her estranged sister Catherine who lives only a mile or so away but might as well live in New York, Victoria begins to learn about the Victorian Language of Flowers, which turns into an obsession and a career for a girl who lacks self-esteem.
The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions; for example: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. For Victoria, the language of flowers becomes her only connection to the outside world. (Diffenbaugh provides a basic dictionary of the language of flowers at the end of the novel).
Grant Hastings, Victoria’s lover, is caught in an intolerable situation. He tries to support his mother, Catherine, but he obviously likes his aunt, Elizabeth. Anyone who’s been in this position knows how difficult it is. The turning point for Victoria comes when she’s homeless, jobless and living in a San Francisco park and meets florist Renata who recognizes the young woman’s talent with flowers. This is when Victoria greatly expands her knowledge of flowers, discovering talents that she couldn’t even imagine. and reunites with Grant after an absence of a decade or so.
I’d lived with Grant before, and failed. I’d lived with Elizabeth; I’d lived with Hazel. Each time I failed. — Victoria
Who is Hazel? You’ll have to read “The Language of Flowers”, a book that was the subject of arguably the most heated literary auction in 2010, to find out. You’ll probably wipe away a tear or two or three when you reach the end. I confess that I did!
About the author
Vanessa Diffenbaugh was born in San Francisco and raised in Chico, California. After studying creative writing and education at Stanford, she went on to teach art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband, PK, have three children: Tre’von, eighteen; Chela, four; and Miles, three. Tre’von, a former foster child, is attending New York University on a Gates Millennium Scholarship. Diffenbaugh and her family currently live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her husband is studying urban school reform at Harvard.
Diffenbaugh is also the founder of the Camellia Network. The mission of the Camellia Network is to create a nationwide movement to support youth transitioning from foster care. In The Language of Flowers, Camellia [kuh-meel-yuh] means “My Destiny is in Your Hands.” The network’s name emphasizes the belief in the interconnectedness of humanity: each gift a young person receives will be accompanied by a camellia, a reminder that the destiny of our nation lies in the hands of our youngest citizens. For more information visit www.camellianetwork.org