The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

9780345525550_custom-dd0dcabf7b2c7bfce49cefd4114316d7d56ae244-s6-c30 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.


Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train Orphan Train: A Novel
by Christina Baker Kline

tlc-logo-resizedI agreed to read and review this book for TLC Book Tours, and wow, what a book.

In England, it was the workhouse – a chapter in the history of the country’s social welfare system wherein the government tried to deal with its destitute and homeless population.  Here in the US, it was orphan trains – a mere footnote in our history.  In both cases, we can look back from our enlightened and modern perspective and see those early efforts as cruel and monstrous, but the truth is, at the time, those methods of dealing with orphans made sense.

In Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, we meet Vivian, a ninety-one year old woman who has agreed to have Molly, a seventeen year-old foster kid on the verge of landing herself in juvie, fulfill her sentence of community service by having her help clean out her attic.  Cleaning out Vivian’s attic, however, becomes merely a way for Vivian to revisit her past one last time, and perhaps make peace with it, finally.

Over eighty years prior, Vivian was a girl named Niamh (pronounced “NEE-uhv”), recently emigrated to New York from a small coastal town in Ireland.  At the tender age of nine, Niamh losesOrphanTrainPoster her family in a fire and is left orphaned.  Some neighbors turn her over to the Children’s Aid Society and she is placed on a train with hundreds of other orphans, bound for the midwest where they will be paraded before townspeople in the hopes of securing new homes.  Not surprisingly, babies are in highest demand – and they are the most likely to actually be taken into families who want a child to love and raise.  Older children, more often, than not, are taken in by people – if they are taken at all – who are looking for free labor.  It is a frightening reality that the children go to anyone willing to take them, with no background checks, interviews or investigations undertaken – they are turned over to strangers in exchange for some signatures on a few forms.  Not surprisingly, they often entered lives of torment, abuse, neglect, and despair.

Niamh – later Beverly, and later still, Vivian (one of the most heartbreaking aspects to me was the fact that most of the children were given new names by the people taking them in; in addition to losing their blood families, they have their very identities stripped from them) – suffers great hardship and loss in her new life.

Now nearing the end of her life, she undertakes the cleaning out of her attic, and old ghosts are resurrected.  Over the weeks that Vivian and Molly work together in the dusty old attic, Vivian shares her story, which turns out to be not so different from Molly’s own story of being bounced around from foster home to foster home.  Despite the seventy years that separate Vivian and Molly in age, a friendship is forged through shared experiences and the recognition of a kindred spirit in each other.

This book really packs a punch, and by the end, I was crying big, sloppy tears.  Wonderful story.