Vanessa Dif­f­en­baugh, based on her debut novel The Lan­guage of Flowers, is an author to remember. If her opening sen­tence: “For eight years I dreamed of fire.” doesn’t pull you in, well then you’re one tough cus­tomer. You’d think with such an old fash­ioned title, Diffenbaugh’s story would be on the side of love and sweetness. But upon real­izing that the author doesn’t reveal the protagonist’s name until the second chapter, I began to suspect that the meaning behind the title was either ironic or mysterious.

In fact, the world of this novel is a dan­gerous and mys­te­rious place. Dif­f­en­baugh takes the reader into a part of our world that is only now being seri­ously examined: the eman­ci­pation of children who have never been suc­cess­fully placed in a foster home or those children who have been deemed “unadoptable.” Vic­toria is one of those children. This is her story and it is told in her off­putting, but under­standable angry and vengeful voice.

Only once in Victoria’s life has she ever been taken in as a foster child with the expec­tation that the expe­rience would result in her adoption. But Victoria’s expec­tation, quite con­trary to her deepest hope, is that she will even­tually ruin any chance she might have of adoption. Unbe­knownst to Vic­toria, Eliz­abeth, the foster mother, has as much need for a daughter as Vic­toria has for a mother.

How does an adult reach a young child whose core knowledge of self is that she is unlovable? Worse than that, Vic­toria is a child who hasn’t a clue as to any emotion other than anger. So, where do the flowers come in? We almost all remember the classic florist ad: Say it with flowers. That is exactly what Eliz­abeth hopes to impart to her young ward who comes to live with her on her vineyard in the rolling hills across the Golden Gate and far from the city.

Grapes are not Elizabeth’s only passion. She loves flowers, not just for their botanical beauty, but for the range of human emo­tions just about every plant has become asso­ciated with since Vic­torian times. For the little over a year that Vic­toria and Eliz­abeth have together, flowers, in their botanical and emo­tional meanings, become the one thing Eliz­abeth is able to give and Vic­toria is able to take.

The story opens as Vic­toria is brought to a group home where, at age eighteen, she has three weeks to find a job and a place to live before her time in the facility is up. The setting is San Fran­cisco and for those readers even slightly familiar with one of the world’s favorite places, the novel is a tour of the city’s most beloved nooks and crannies.

Dif­f­en­baugh skill­fully moves her pro­tag­onist between the present and the past in a series of chrono­logical chapters, allowing Vic­toria to lay it all out and the reader to grasp the depth of both her deficits and her potential. Vic­toria is probably one of the most unlikable char­acters a reader will meet, but by the time a cli­matic series of events occur, most readers will be rooting mightily for her success.

It is dif­ficult to write about this book without giving away the plot. It is a story of the nearly invisible children who, man­dadted by law, must live within a well-​​meaning, but often failing system of foster care. It is a story of mothers and daughters, of the mothers we wish we had and the daughters we may never know. The power of Diffenbaugh’s writing is that she never takes the easy way out. Hope does not come without a price, physical and emo­tional. Vic­toria is brave enough to pay the price and Vanessa Dif­f­en­baugh is brave enough to write the story.

Does Sunny Solomon’s review tempt you?

Buy The Lan­guage of Flowers locally or look online at Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, or you can check out an IndieBound book­store.

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