The Language of Flowers

  • Vanessa Diffenbaugh
  • Ballantine
  • 336 pp.

For a young women scarred by the harsh realities of the foster-care system, the poetics of flowers become a metaphor for hope.

Reviewed by Patricia Bochi

“For eight years I dreamed of fire. Trees ignited as I passed them; oceans burned. The sugary smoke settled in my hair as I slept, the scent like a cloud left on my pillow as I rose. Even so, the moment my mattress started to burn, I bolted awake.”

Such is the opening of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s genteelly titled debut novel, The Language of Flowers: arresting and unexpected. The reader soon discovers that the story, which skillfully blends the romantic realm of flowers and their Victorian meanings with the grim realities of the foster-care system, is anything but ordinary.  

Emancipated from the foster-care system, 18–year-old Victoria Jones does not know, nor does she want to know, how to communicate with the world around her except through flowers and the messages they convey. In the street with nowhere to go, Victoria sleeps in a public park where she plants a garden that gives meaning to her life and muffles the despair and solitude of homelessness. But when she finds a job with a florist, she discovers her talent for selecting flowers that fulfill people’s wishes. Her life begins to change, and new struggles ensue.

Informed by her own experience as a foster mother, Diffenbaugh’s voice resonates true as she weaves her character’s experiences as a foster child with the latter’s unwavering devotion to the language of flowers. Through Victoria’s eyes, the reader gets a glimpse of her life of abuse and neglect: “I’d been locked out before. The first time I was 5 years old, my protruding stomach empty in a house with too many children and too many bottles of beer.”

And the warnings proffered by Meredith, Victoria’s social worker and “permanent connection,” reinforce Victoria’s perspective: “When you turn ten, the county will label you unadoptable … It’ll be group home after group home until you emancipate.”

With impunity, Victoria strikes back with flowers — a sprig of lavender (“mistrust”) to Meredith, rhododendron (“beware”) and snapdragon (“presumption”) to the vendor at the flower market — delighted that her coded messages remain secret.

Victoria is angry and defiant until the morning she must leave the transition house for homelessness. She prepares herself with serene detachment and tainted cynicism, having listened to her housemates “picking through the rest of my belongings like hungry animals devouring the fallen.” By now, all sympathy is with Victoria for enduring her brutal environment.

When Victoria encounters women who do not give up on her, her attachment (even avoidance) disorder becomes acute. She lashes out at their attempts at closeness — emotional or physical. (She dislikes being touched.) The intensity of Victoria’s painful wavering against these maternal symbols and their possibilities is palpable.

That Victoria cannot forge attachments with the people in her life is the psychological residual of having moved from one caretaker to another at a havoc-causing pace. (Victoria remembers having “lived in thirty-two homes.”)

Diffenbaugh alternates present and past, front and back stories, through brief chapters (even vignettes, in some cases) that evolve complementarily. She also intersperses the harsh realities of the foster-care system with the poetics of flowers, and in doing so creates a metaphor for hope.

Hope lurks in each chapter, as deftly intertwined as the bouquets Victoria makes for brides. Yet, convinced of her inability to succeed, Victoria rejects the notion of new beginnings. “A rose is a rose is a rose.”

Adding to the complexity of the story line is an old secret around which Victoria’s journey is wrapped and whose increasing significance is controlled by the story’s shifts from past to present. By slowing the plot, this technique allows for full character development while creating suspense.

Diffenbaugh’s succinct dialogues capture the character’s often conflicting emotions and inexperience in expressing them with words, while her choice of a first-person narrator taps Victoria’s inner thoughts and unique perspective with eloquence. Her descriptions are rendered with meticulous attention to details: “When I had finished, spiraling white mums emerged from a cushion of snow-colored verbena, and clusters of pale climbing roses circled and dripped over the edge of a tightly wrapped nosegay.” The author provides a glossary of flower definitions at the end.

Victoria’s journey shows her amazing transformation from the angry, mistrusting child who delights that the common thistle (“misanthropy”) is the best flower for communicating her message to the world, to the young woman who is ready for a second chance and believes that she, like moss (“maternal love”), can grow spontaneously without roots.

Written with great sensitivity, The Language of Flowers is ultimately about hope — hope through love and forgiveness — which gradually takes hold of its flawed yet hauntingly human protagonist.

Patricia Bochi is a writer, Egyptologist and art historian. She is working on her first novel and serves on the Editorial Board of The Washington Independent Review of Books.

comments powered by Disqus