The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Date: April 23, 2012
Rating: 5 out of 5
Book Summary: 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 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 with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger 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.
My Thoughts: I wasn’t very interested in reading this book at first. When I was a practicing attorney, at one point I worked in the area of neglected and abused children. I learned enough about the foster care system to understand that someone who lacks actual hands-on experience with children, who have been in foster care, can truly know what that’s like. But the minute I read that the author, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, is a foster mother, I wanted to read The Language of Flowers. I thought this was such a beautiful and powerful book, filled with pain and heartache but, even more, with hope and love that I’ve read it twice…so far. I know I’ll be reading it again, too.
Victoria, at 18, has “aged out” of foster care after more than a decade in the system. She’s basically on her own and responsible for her food, shelter and work. That doesn’t sound easy for any young person, let alone Victoria who didn’t have a good childhood. She is sullen, prickly, cold and withdrawn. She rarely, if ever, makes eye contact when speaking to someone, which she does as seldom as possible. It would be easy to call Victoria unlikable, perhaps even bratty. Diffenbaugh makes sure we know what growing up was like for Victoria, as it is for many kids in foster care, by sharing those years with us in chapters about Victoria's past which switch back and forth with ones about her present life. We’re given a look at some of the daily struggles and hardships Victoria experienced. Diffenbaugh does a remarkable job of presenting anecdotes that show us how Victoria learned over and over again she wasn’t lovable. She may not have been physically abused, but Diffenbaugh successively shows us that being chastised and ignored everyday chips away at a child’s essence until they’re utterly miserable. This type of emotional abuse often results in a complete distrust and fear of the world. Victoria had nobody in her corner fighting for her, and she took that personally. Certainly anyone would and children especially are wont to. So Victoria reached the only conclusion she could: she believed she was the problem. She was unlovable.
Diffenbaugh trusts us not to give up on Victoria because we know underneath her hard exterior is a young woman who still hopes to be loved and connected to others. Victoria began nurturing and loving plants and flowers at a young age. She was taught by the only wonderful foster mother she had, Elizabeth, all about plants, flowers and their significant meanings in our language. Victoria continued to learn all she could about flowers and their language even when that foster situation ended in disaster. Diffenbaugh contrasts the beauty and life-affirming nature of flowers with Victoria’s own nature. This is just one aspect of the author’s ability to present seemingly disparate concepts and connect them. I thought this was a brilliant way to show us that Victoria may be damaged but still worth befriending. Diffenbaugh does this a few times throughout the book, surprising us at times but certainly never boring us. It’s a fresh and interesting way to tell a story and kept me interested and reading, particularly because, all the while I felt I was getting to know and understand Victoria more.
I hoped, early in the book, that Diffenbaugh would find someone for Victoria who’d want to understand her and know her. A person who would nurture her slowly, forgiving her faults, acknowledging her intelligence and resourcefulness and eventually, love her for who she is. This kind of relationship doesn’t happen overnight normally and, with Victoria, it seems it’ll be an even slower and more rigorous process. Diffenbaugh shows us what a risky venture it is, filled with many bad and painful days. A person who may be the right one for Victoria shows up in her life but there’s much more to the story than a simple meeting. Once again, Diffenbaugh amazed me with her story-telling abilities. She doesn’t rest on her laurels by putting everything on the shoulders of the savvy but dysfunctional Victoria. Knowing we all have pasts, many with complicated stories, Diffenbaugh uses this to her advantage. She manages to connect Victoria’s past to her present and the result is a mesmerizing story about a brave young woman.
The Language of Flowers has received terrific reviews which are completely deserved in my mind. Diffenbaugh’s debut is a layered story with shocking, grim moments as well as ones of extreme heartbreak and pain. But there’s also sincerity, love and laughter in this book. Diffenbaugh shows a profound understanding of human emotion and behavior and of the difficulties life sometimes presents. She reminds us that, although life can be complicated and bewildering, our lives can also have many days that fill us with warmth and happiness. It’s ultimately up to us to choose to make ourselves vulnerable to the connections and relationships that will help us to blossom. Diffenbaugh understands this so well that she didn’t stop at being a foster mother. She started the Camellia Network to assist foster children who have reached 18 thrive in the adult world. Visit the website to read the young people’s amazing stories as well as an interview with the author.
If you haven’t read The Language of Flowers yet, you don’t wait much longer. I cannot recommend this book enough. This is one of my all-time favorite books.
For further information see:
The Language of Flowers website;
Vanessa Diffenbaugh's Facebook page
I received a copy of this book many months ago in 2012. Between my health problems and computer problems this is my first chance to post a review. I apologize to Vanessa Diffenbaugh and Randonm House, especially Liza Eliano, for the very long delay in posting my review. Thank you so much for a copy of The Language of Flowers.