I won an ARC of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut novel, The Language of Flowers, several months ago through a giveaway held by the publishers. At the time, I knew nothing about the history of the book and next to nothing about its plot. It wasn’t until I actually received the ARC and skimmed the first couple of pages that I learned there had been a major bidding war over this book; rights to translate the book have already been sold for 31 languages! Having now read the book, I can understand why. It’s been one of pleasantly surprising reads this year.
The Language of Flowers is reminiscent of White Oleander, except this book has more heart and is better grounded in reality. Told in flashbacks, it follows the main protagonist, Victoria Jones, as she ages out of the foster care system and is left to fend for herself at the age of 18, something that happens to 20,000 teens annually in the United States. By the age of 10, Victoria was considered a lost cause and all but guaranteed to spend her teen years bouncing around homes as a ward of the state. At 18, she is angry, detached, and extremely self-destructive, pushing away anyone who tries to befriend her. She is accepted into a sort of halfway house for women who have recently been emancipated from the system but takes no real initiative to find work. When she is unable to pay rent, she is kicked out of the house and becomes homeless.
Though Victoria shuts herself off from people, she has a true talent with flowers, a talent she learned as a child from one of her previous foster parents. She had been carefully taught the Victorian language of flowers: each flower has its own specific meaning. In the Victorian era, suitors spent much time composing the perfect bouquet, and women spent a lot of time excitedly deciphering the message the object of her affection was trying to convey. Though this “language” has mostly died off over the years, Victoria’s foster mother at the time used the language of flowers to open lines of communication between herself and her stubborn young charge.
I loved the concept of using flowers to communicate being utilized as a plot device, especially since Diffenbaugh does it so well. She even includes a dictionary of flowers at the end of the book; it was interesting to browse through those pages to see what the flowers I encounter on a day-to-day basis actually mean. One reason I think that her ability to convey all these emotions so realistically is that, in addition to being an author, Diffenbaugh is herself a foster mother and an advocate for youths in the foster system. It is easy to see Victoria as a real person one can empathize with rather than some overwrought two-dimensional character.
The main thing I absolutely loved about the book was that it showed how, contrary to popular belief, motherhood doesn’t come naturally to everyone and some people have to work hard to develop a mothering instinct. One thing I hate is when I’m watching a movie or reading a book or listening to a song in which a baby suddenly comes into the picture, and everything suddenly becomes happy because babies make everything better. It’s just not realistic! Aside from the fact that that myth would not have worked in a book about abandoned or unwanted children, I appreciate the fact that Diffenbaugh challenged this popular narrative. Her characters are all the more relatable because of it.
I honestly couldn’t put this book down (thanks in no small part to those cliffhanger flashbacks, I’m sure). The pacing is perfect, the “language” of flowers is intriguing, and Diffenbaugh is a talented writer. I wouldn’t exactly call this light reading because of the subject matter, but it is an easy book to lose yourself in. Come Christmas time, I can already think of two people I’m buying it for.
The Language of Flowers was released August 23, 2011 by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House.. Additionally, Vanessa Diffenbaugh recently helped launch the Camellia Network raises awareness and help teens transitioning out of the foster system (Camellia means “my destiny is in your hands”). You can find out how to get involved here.