The Language of Flowers: A Novel
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
In this novel, Diffenbaugh explores the repercussions of growing up in the foster care system.
Victoria Jones, exact birthdate unknown, was abandoned as a newborn. When she was found, she was estimated to be approximately three weeks old. At this tender age, she enters the foster care system, bouncing from one foster family to the next. She grows accustomed to her case worker, Meredith, showing up on short notice and telling her, “Pack up,” meaning being uprooted yet again. By the time Victoria is nine years old, she has been in more foster homes than she can remember, and she is a little girl full of rage and unable to trust or attach.
Then she is placed with Elizabeth, a single woman who lives a solitary life in an isolated farmhouse on her vineyard. This is Victoria’s last chance – she will soon turn ten years old and be deemed “unadoptable.” If things don’t work out with Elizabeth, Victoria will spend the rest of her days until she reaches eighteen in a group home. Right away, Elizabeth sees something in Victoria that nobody else has bothered to look for or nurture; under Victoria’s anger and hostility beats the heart of a vulnerable little girl who wants more than anything to be loved, to belong to someone. The two become very attached to one another, and just when it seems that a happy ending is in sight, things go terribly wrong.
The novel moves back and forth in time between Victoria’s volatile and chaotic childhood and the present day. As the story opens, Victoria wakes up on her eighteenth birthday and is finally free of the foster care system in which she’s grown up. Her entire self-perception and perceptions about the world have been shaped by abandonment, rejection, abuse, and neglect. She has no high school diploma, no support system, no skills to speak of – and yet, she’s expected to somehow make it in the world now. All she has is an affinity for flowers and the language they speak. Years ago, Elizabeth taught her the meanings of hundreds of different flowers and plants, as described in Victorian times. Soon enough, Victoria lands a job with a florist, which leads her path to intersect with someone from her past. When Victoria finds herself on the verge of motherhood, she is abruptly faced with the prospect of running, as she’s always done, or finding a way to crack the nut-hard shell around her heart and learn to trust and to love.
I enjoyed this book, although after a while, the whole communicating-with-flowers thing became a little tiresome to me. Diffenbaugh has created some interesting characters here: Victoria, although hardened and profoundly angry, retains vulnerability that makes the reader root for her. There is an enigmatic, almost ethereal quality about her. Elizabeth made me uncomfortable – although she’s ultimately the very first positive force in Victoria’s life, she seems troubled and unstable. Perhaps this was intentional on the author’s part to show that we are all flawed – even the good guys. There are scenes involving Victoria’s baby that really troubled me – so much so that I lay awake at night worrying over it.
Very well-written, this novel sheds a light on what can happen when children grow up unloved. I expect an interesting discussion in my book club.