Sunday, March 25, 2012

Book says my favorite flower means ... Anger?

Vanessa Diffenbaugh's debut novel "The Language of Flowers" (Ballantine Books, 2011, $25, 320 pp.) drew me in with a compelling plot, taught me a bit about the meanings of my favorite bouquets, and kept up a good bit of mystery, suspense and emotional trauma throughout.

The story follows Victoria Jones, a stubborn and oft-misunderstood product of the foster-care system. She's been through more than 30 foster homes when we meet her on her 18th birthday. That day she is set free into the world to try to fashion a life from the broken pieces of her childhood.

We also meet the young, angry Victoria, and learn why she prefers to be emotionally and even physically unattached from others.

I found myself rooting for Victoria to find a normal, happy life, and many times I was disappointed. She makes sometimes outrageous decisions that may not make sense to a reader who's never been unloved, homeless or without food.

The one thing that seems to make sense in Victoria's life are flowers. She learned in one of her foster homes the meanings of most plants and flowers. Such as my favorite flower, the sickly sweet oversized Peony, which somehow translates to anger. And my favorite garden herb, Basil, which means - and I still don't get how something so good-smelling and tasty could translate to this - hate.

But I am heartened to know that the blossoms on the soon-to-be gracefully blooming Dogwood trees in my yard mean love undiminished by diversity (that has a nice ring to it). And my go-to inexpensive yet elegant table-topping favorite, Alstromeria, means devotion.

View Victoria's flower dictionary here.

Victoria finds solace in flowers, and her knowledge of them lands her a job with a florist who tolerates the feisty girl's moods and whims because of her immense talents. Victoria becomes known for her ability to create bouquets with almost magical powers. Wedding flowers that can almost guarantee a happy home, apology flowers, blossoms that incite passion. Through her work she finds the first real romantic relationship of her life with a flower-seller, and together they research, explore and test the meanings of a multitude of blooms. The historically withdrawn loner Victoria herself seems to be blooming.

Until the inevitable happens and her world is torn upside down.

"Fate delights to thwart us thus. Passion will choose his own time to rush upon the scene, and lingers sluggishly behind, when an appropriate adjustment of events would seem to summon his appearance," ~ a line from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappacini's Daughter" that aptly applies.

I'm not going to spoil the book for you, but suffice to say that things twist and turn and don't go the way you might expect or want for Victoria, who throughout the tale seems to badly need a break.

This novel is worth reading. I liked it but didn't love it (Those are, incidentally, the very same words uttered by Mercury Editor Nancy March when describing the book, which she kindly loaned to me). However, the story certainly did have staying power. And I was surprised to find yet another debut novel so well-done.

It seems the author had a very personal stake in the story. As I write this I find that Diffenbaugh has been a foster mother and has founded an advocacy group (see below) to support teens making the transition from foster care to lives of their own.

Visit the book website here.

About the author:

Vanessa Diffenbaugh was born in San Francisco and raised in Chico, Calif. After studying creative writing and education at Stanford, she went on to teach art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband, PK, have three children: Tre’von, 18 ; Chela, 4; and Miles, 3. Tre’von, a former foster child, is attending New York University on a Gates Millennium Scholarship.

Diffenbaugh is the founder of the Camellia Network. The mission of the Camellia Network is to create a nationwide movement to support youth transitioning from foster care. Per "The Language of Flowers," Camellia means My Destiny is in Your Hands. "The network’s name emphasizes the belief in the interconnectedness of humanity: each gift a young person receives will be accompanied by a camellia, a reminder that the destiny of our nation lies in the hands of our youngest citizens," states the book website. For more information about the Camellia Network, visit

Diffenbaugh and her family reside in Cambridge, Mass.

1 comment:

Canada said...

I really enjoyed this book and could not put it down. The writing was excellent, the characters vivid, the story heartbreaking, and the language of the flowers original and interesting. My only small criticism is that the ending seemed a bit too quickly tied up--but this does not stop me from wholeheartedly recommending this book.