Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s gorgeous debut novel is about an 18-year-old girl who ages out of the foster care system. She begins the book homeless on the streets of San Francisco. The thing that keeps her grounded, indeed the way she is comfortable communicating with the world, is the Victorian language of flowers. Appropriately, her name is Victoria. Victoria has a gift for flowers, and one of the novel’s immediate pleasures is watching her discover her talent working as the assistant to a florist.
The juxtaposition of this old-fashioned language and the urban setting of the novel is particularly touching. The language is a secret part of Victoria, it feels almost as if it has sheltered her. So she is taken aback when she realizes that the attractive flower-seller in the market speaks it too — they pass messages back and forth by giving each other significant flowers.
However, the meaning of each flower is not as straight-forward and trustworthy as she was taught as a young girl, something she learns while researching at the San Francisco Public Library.
Author Vanessa Diffenbaugh began mentoring foster kids when she was only 23. She recently established the Camellia Network, which supports 18-21 year-olds transitioning from foster care.
I believe this novel will appeal to a great variety of readers. Teens, obviously, but I also look forward to recommending this one to my faculty/staff bookgroup at school.
Adult/High School–Chapters that alternate between Victoria’s past as a foster child and present as a semi-homeless 18-year-old reveal secrets and unravel mysteries and create a narrative that is richly textured and hard to put down. As layers of meaning unfold and overlap, past and present collapse into stunning insight about Victoria and her life. She finds love, understanding, and acceptance with her foster mom, Elizabeth, at age 8, so something truly horrific must have occurred to explain why she is aging out of a group home 10 years later. In the present, the young woman finds her first job in a florist shop, putting to use the language of flowers that she learned from Elizabeth, and she finds a way to thrive and connect through it. She creates bouquets for sad men wanting to reconnect with daughters, lonely wives, and anxious brides. She learns to work with marriages that she knows will last so as to keep her business successful and in demand. It is ironic yet thoroughly believable that despite all her success with other people’s relationships, her own are disconnected and distant. Teens will relate to the book: there’s a push/pull romance, teen pregnancy, lots of feeling outcast and separate yet never descending into victimhood. On top of that, it’s smart, emotionally sophisticated, realistic, and beautifully written. Other books have explored the experiences of foster and abandoned youth, including Janet Fitch’s White Oleander (Little Brown, 2001) and Billie Letts’s Where the Heart Is (Warner, 1998). The Language of Flowers soars above them.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA