REVIEW: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

LanguageOfFlowersCoverIn The Language of Flowers, debut novelist Vanessa Diffenbaugh tells the story of Victoria Jones, an unwanted child reared by the abusive parent known as foster care and emancipated from the system onto indifferent streets.

Despite the unyielding harshness of Victoria’s childhood, Diffenbaugh’s novel is as tender as the wind whispering through the wildflowers she weaves into her story.

Narrated by Victoria, her memories are painful and sweet, like the fruit on a thorny bramble bush. She recounts moments of hopeful foster placements that tear at her as she is yanked on to the next. And the love that draws and repels Victoria throughout the book is as enveloping as night blooming jasmine at the peek of its flower—love passing just out of reach, love being rejected to avoid losing it.

For the reader who loves an unusual love story, one that, like the seeds of a dandelion, blow in every direction, except a tidily happy one, The Language of Flowers is an extraordinary gift from a writer who could not spare Victoria from her anguish in the novel, because she knows the reality of her character’s plight. Diffenbaugh is herself a foster parent.

She is also an aficionado of flowering plants and their romantic meanings, a language that sustains Victoria’s humanity as she struggles to find a way to exist in a world for which she has not been prepared and in which she cannot seem to find a place to grow and blossom.

It is so rewarding to step into this book, to live in the shrubs with Victoria, rooting for her to accept the hug of friendship, the love of a partner; willing her to stay connected, to believe in trust; hoping her petals will open as the language of flowers becomes her steadfast path toward sanity and salvation.

If a reader were to compose a bouquet to reveal Diffenbaugh’s novel, as Victoria reveals herself—through flowers’ meanings—the bouquet might look something like this…

Laburnum, meaning “pensive beauty”—for Diffenbaugh’s prose. She renders the poignancy of Victoria’s childhood in a thoughtful voice that sings her abuse, rejection and neglect, and still finds the joy—and the comfort—in the beauty of nature’s bloom.

Peonies, meaning “anger”—for the rage Victoria intuits is hers, fairly earned and mistakenly directed to those who love her most, to herself.

Gladiolas, meaning “you pierce my heart” and redbud, meaning “betrayal”—for the wounds inflicted on Victoria and those she wants to love by the lingering treachery of her past, a past that threatens to doom her to an isolated, fractured life.

Scarlet pimpernel, meaning “change”—for the inevitable quest of the characters to connect, compelling them to cross each other’s paths and alter them.

And camellia, meaning “My destiny is in your hands”—or the lovely story Diffenbaugh has deftly and delicately crafted, a story of such enduring love that it grows beyond the novel. Diffenbaugh has cofounded the Camellia Network in the hope that her book might inspire others to help young adults ineptly emancipated from the foster care system. The network represents an interesting blend of literature and advocacy. Learn more at www.camellianetwork.org. And, read The Language of Flowers. It might give you hope—the pale, fragile blossoms of the hawthorn.

Note: You can visit Diffenbaugh's Flower Dictionary here.

Published by the North County Times.