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.