I would like to hand Vanessa Diffenbaugh a bouquet of bouvardia (enthusiasm), gladiolus (you pierce my heart) and lisianthus (appreciation). In this original and brilliant first novel, Diffenbaugh has united her fascination with the language of flowers — a long-forgotten and mysterious way of communication — with her firsthand knowledge of the travails of the foster-care system. She is full of flower wisdom and has fostered many children, often damaged victims of an unresponsive bureaucracy.
Her 9-year-old heroine, Victoria Jones, has already passed through at least 32 foster families that couldn’t handle her. Her social worker describes her as “Detached. Quick-tempered. Tight-lipped. Unrepentant.” Now Victoria is being taken to live with Elizabeth, yet another foster mother. “This is your last chance,” she’s told. “Your very last chance.”
Elizabeth, the owner and operator of a vineyard, was raised on a flower farm. Nothing Victoria can do to alienate Elizabeth succeeds — including filling her shoes with prickly-pear spines. “I will love you, and I will keep you. Okay?” Elizabeth states calmly. She feeds Victoria’s fascination with flowers, and they go together to the flower market, where Elizabeth’s teenage nephew works. She tells Victoria she’s never had contact with him as a result of a feud with her sister.
The twofold narrative cuts abruptly back and forth, creating a complex canvas that contains Victoria’s tumultuous life as a foster child and her adult life as a florist. Her relationship with Elizabeth is eventually shattered by Victoria’s crazy plan to keep her soon-to-be adoptive mother all to herself. She ends up, consequently, back in a group home. At 18, aging out of the welfare system, she becomes homeless. “My hopes for the future were simple: I wanted to be alone, and to be surrounded by flowers.” She remains true to her goal: “Suddenly I knew I wanted to be a florist,” she says later. “I wanted to spend my life choosing flowers for perfect strangers.” While sleeping in the park and eating food left on restaurant tables, Victoria finds work with the owner of the Bloom flower shop. She swiftly learns the trade and starts a flourishing business for weddings and lovers by picking exactly the flowers with the right language to deepen their affection and promise them future blessings.
Victoria is less successful in her own love life. As an adult, she again meets Elizabeth’s nephew at the market. Wordlessly, he hands her a small sprig of mistletoe (I surmount all obstacles). But no love affair will be easy for this introverted and hostile young woman. She flies in the face of almost every accepted emotion and behavior. Yet the reader understands and reads on, hoping for resolution and a happy ending.
This novel is both enchanting and cruel, full of beauty and anger. Diffenbaugh is a talented writer and a mesmerizing storyteller. She includes a flower dictionary in case we want to use the language ourselves. And there is one more sprig I should add to her bouquet: a single pink carnation (I will never forget you).
Weeks is a former editor of Book World.
the language of flowers
By Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Ballantine. 322 pp. $25