The Language of Flowers

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Overview

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The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and ...

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Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
 
The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.
 
Look for special features inside. Join the Circle for author chats and more.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Victoria Jones is just eighteen, recently "emancipated" from British foster-care system and now sleeping on park benches. Timid and self-deprecating, she speaks with confidence in only one tongue, the language of flowers. Her gift with floral subtleties, however, proves to be enough, at least temporarily; it opens the way to a new vocation that nurtures both others and herself. Eventually though, Victoria discovers that to truly flourish, she must grapple with the painful secrets of her own past.

From the Publisher
“Instantly entrancing.”—Elle
 
“[An] original and brilliant first novel . . . a mesmerizing storyteller . . . I would like to hand Vanessa Diffenbaugh a bouquet of bouvardia (enthusiasm), gladiolus (you pierce my heart) and lisianthus (appreciation). . . . And there is one more sprig I should add to her bouquet: a single pink carnation (I will never forget you).”—Brigitte Weeks, The Washington Post
 
“A captivating novel in which a single sprig of rosemary speaks louder than words . . . The Language of Flowers deftly weaves the sweetness of newfound love with the heartache of past mistakes. . . . [It] will certainly change how you choose your next bouquet.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“Fascinating . . . Diffenbaugh clearly knows both the human heart and her plants, and she keeps us rooting for the damaged Victoria.”—O: The Oprah Magazine (book of the week)
 
“Diffenbaugh effortlessly spins this enchanting tale, making even her prickly protagonist impossible not to love.”—Entertainment Weekly
 
“Compelling . . . immensely engaging . . . unabashedly romantic . . . an emotional arc of almost unbearable poignance.”—The Boston Globe
Brigitte Weeks
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…This novel is both enchanting and cruel, full of beauty and anger. Diffenbaugh is a talented writer and a mesmerizing storyteller.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Diffenbaugh's affecting debut chronicles the first harrowing steps into adulthood taken by a deeply wounded soul who finds her only solace in an all-but-forgotten language. On her 18th birthday, Victoria Jones ages out of the foster care system, a random series of living arrangements around the San Francisco Bay Area the only home she's ever known. Unable to express herself with words, she relies on the Victorian language of flowers to communicate: dahlias for "dignity"; rhododendron for "beware." Released from care with almost nothing, Victoria becomes homeless, stealing food and sleeping in McKinley Square, in San Francisco, where she maintains a small garden. Her secret knowledge soon lands her a job selling flowers, where she meets Grant, a mystery man who not only speaks her language, but also holds a crucial key to her past. Though Victoria is wary of almost everyone, she opens to Grant, and he reconnects her with the only person who has ever mattered in her life. Diffenbaugh's narrator is a hardened survivor and wears her damage on her sleeve. Struggling against all and ultimately reborn, Victoria Jones is hard to love, but very easy to root for. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Diffenbaugh's debut novel opens on Victoria Jones's 18th birthday, which coincides with her emancipation from California's foster care system. Abandoned at birth, Victoria has grown up in a string of bad foster homes, except for the one year she spent with Elizabeth, a vineyard owner who taught her the meaning of flowers. Alternating between Victoria's brief time with Elizabeth and her unsteady attempt to face life as an adult with little education and less experience, Diffenbaugh weaves together the two narratives using the Victorian language of flowers that ultimately helps shape Victoria's future as she grapples with a painful decision from her past. VERDICT Victoria might be her own worst enemy, but her defensiveness and self-doubt as a foster child and her desire to live beyond what she was thought capable of will sway readers toward her favor. Fans of Janet Fitch's White Oleander will enjoy this solid and well-written debut, which is also certain to be a hit with book clubs. [National marketing campaign reflects strong in-house buzz; rights sold in 22 countries; Diffenbaugh will be a featured speaker at the May 24 BEA Random House/LJ Book and Author Breakfast, bit.ly/gOEPwy.—Ed.]—Mara Dabrishus, Ursuline Coll., Pepper Pike, OH
Kirkus Reviews

Cleverly combining tender and tough, Diffenbaugh's highly anticipated debut creates a place in the world for a social misfit with floral insight.

After more than 32 homes, 18-year-old Victoria Jones, abandoned as a baby, has given up on the idea of love or family. Scarred, suspicious and defiant, she has nothing: no friends, no money, just an attitude, an instinct for flowers and an education in their meaning from Elizabeth, the one kind foster parent who persevered with her. Now graduating out of state care, Victoria must make her own way and starts out by sleeping rough in a local San Francisco park. But a florist gives her casual work and then, at a flower market, she meets Grant, Elizabeth's nephew, another awkward soul who speaks the language of flowers. Diffenbaugh narrates Victoria and Grant's present-day involvement, over which the cloud of the past hangs heavy, in parallel with the history of Elizabeth's foster care, which we know ended badly. After a strong, self-destructive start, Victoria's long road to redemption takes some dips including an unconvincing, drawn-out subplot involving Elizabeth's sister, arson and postnatal depression. While true to the logic of its perverse psychology, the story can be exasperating before finally swerving toward the light.

An unusual, overextended romance, fairy tale in parts but with a sprinkling of grit.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345525550
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/3/2012
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 959
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.76 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Vanessa Diffenbaugh

To write The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh found inspiration in her own experience as a foster mother. After studying creative writing and education at Stanford University, Vanessa taught art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband, PK, have three children and live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is her first novel.

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Read an Excerpt

1.

For eight years I dreamed of fire. Trees ignited as I passed them; oceans burned. The sugary smoke settled in my hair as I slept, the scent like a cloud left on my pillow as I rose. Even so, the moment my mattress started to burn, I bolted awake. The sharp, chemical smell was nothing like the hazy syrup of my dreams; the two were as different as Indian and Carolina jasmine, separation and attachment. They could not be confused.

Standing in the middle of the room, I located the source of the fire. A neat row of wooden matches lined the foot of the bed. They ignited, one after the next, a glowing picket fence across the piped edging. Watching them light, I felt a terror unequal to the size of the flickering flames, and for a paralyzing moment I was ten years old again, desperate and hopeful in a way I had never been before and would never be again.

But the bare synthetic mattress did not ignite like the thistle had in late October. It smoldered, and then the fire went out.

It was my eighteenth birthday.

In the living room, a row of fidgeting girls sat on the sagging couch. Their eyes scanned my body and settled on my bare, unburned feet. One girl looked relieved; another disappointed. If I’d been staying another week, I would have remembered each expression. I would have retaliated with rusty nails in the soles of shoes or small pebbles in bowls of chili. Once, I’d held the end of a glowing metal clothes hanger to a sleeping roommate’s shoulder, for an offense less severe than arson.

But in an hour, I’d be gone. The girls knew this, every one.

From the center of the couch, a girl stood up. She looked young—fifteen, sixteen at most—and was pretty in a way I didn’t see much of: good posture, clear skin, new clothes. I didn’t immediately recognize her, but when she crossed the room there was something familiar about the way she walked, arms bent and aggressive. Though she’d just moved in, she was not a stranger; it struck me that I’d lived with her before, in the years after Elizabeth, when I was at my most angry and violent.

Inches from my body, she stopped, her chin jutting into the space between us.

“The fire,” she said evenly, “was from all of us. Happy birthday.”

Behind her, the row of girls on the couch squirmed. A hood was pulled up, a blanket wrapped tighter. Morning light flickered across a line of lowered eyes, and the girls looked suddenly young, trapped. The only ways out of a group home like this one were to run away, age out, or be institutionalized. Level 14 kids weren’t adopted; they rarely, if ever, went home. These girls knew their prospects. In their eyes was nothing but fear: of me, of their housemates, of the life they had earned or been given. I felt an unexpected rush of pity. I was leaving; they had no choice but to stay.

I tried to push my way toward the door, but the girl stepped to the side, blocking my path.

“Move,” I said.

A young woman working the night shift poked her head out of the kitchen. She was probably not yet twenty, and more terrified of me than any of the girls in the room.

“Please,” she said, her voice begging. “This is her last morning. Just let her go.”

I waited, ready, as the girl before me pulled her stomach in, fists clenched tight. But after a moment, she shook her head and turned away. I walked around her.

I had an hour before Meredith would come for me. Opening the front door, I stepped outside. It was a foggy San Francisco morning, the concrete porch cool on my bare feet. I paused, thinking. I’d planned to gather a response for the girls, something biting and hateful, but I felt strangely forgiving. Maybe it was because I was eighteen, because, all at once, it was over for me, that I was able to feel tenderness toward their crime. Before I left, I wanted to say something to combat the fear in their eyes.

Walking down Fell, I turned onto Market. My steps slowed as I reached a busy intersection, unsure of where to go. Any other day I would have plucked annuals from Duboce Park, scoured the overgrown lot at Page and Buchanan, or stolen herbs from the neighborhood market. For most of a decade I’d spent every spare moment memorizing the meanings and scientific descriptions of individual flowers, but the knowledge went mostly unutilized. I used the same flowers again and again: a bouquet of marigold, grief; a bucket of thistle, misanthropy; a pinch of dried basil, hate. Only occasionally did my communication vary: a pocketful of red carnations for the judge when I realized I would never go back to the vineyard, and peony for Meredith, as often as I could find it. Now, searching Market Street for a florist, I scoured my mental dictionary.

After three blocks I came to a liquor store, where paper-wrapped bouquets wilted in buckets under the barred windows. I paused in front of the store. They were mostly mixed arrangements, their messages conflicting. The selection of solid bouquets was small: standard roses in red and pink, a wilting bunch of striped carnations, and, bursting from its paper cone, a cluster of purple dahlias. Dignity. Immediately, I knew it was the message I wanted to give. Turning my back to the angled mirror above the door, I tucked the flowers inside my coat and ran.

I was out of breath by the time I returned to the house. The living room was empty, and I stepped inside to unwrap the dahlias. The flowers were perfect starbursts, layers of white-tipped purple petals unfurling from tight buds of a center. Biting off an elastic band, I detangled the stems. The girls would never understand the meaning of the dahlias (the meaning itself an ambiguous statement of encouragement); even so, I felt an unfamiliar lightness as I paced the long hall, slipping a stem under each closed bedroom door.

The remaining flowers I gave to the young woman who’d worked the night shift. She was standing by the kitchen window, waiting for her replacement.

“Thank you,” she said when I handed her the bouquet, confusion in her voice. She twirled the stiff stems between her palms.

Meredith arrived at ten o’clock, as she’d told me she would. I waited on the front porch, a cardboard box balanced on my thighs. In eighteen years I’d collected mostly books: the Dictionary of Flowers and Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers, both sent to me by Elizabeth a month after I left her home; botany textbooks from libraries all over the East Bay; thin paperback volumes of Victorian poetry stolen from quiet bookstores. Stacks of folded clothes covered the books, a collection of found and stolen items, some that fit, many that did not. Meredith was taking me to The Gathering House, a transitional home in the Outer Sunset. I’d been on the waiting list since I was ten.

“Happy birthday,” Meredith said as I put my box on the backseat of her county car. I didn’t say anything. We both knew that it might or might not have been my birthday. My first court report listed my age as approximately three weeks; my birth date and location were unknown, as were my biological parents. August 1 had been chosen for purposes of emancipation, not celebration.

I slunk into the front seat next to Meredith and closed the door, waiting for her to pull away from the curb. Her acrylic fingernails tapped against the steering wheel. I buckled my seat belt. Still, the car did not move. I turned to face Meredith. I had not changed out of my pajamas, and I pulled my flannel-covered knees up to my chest and wrapped my jacket around my legs. My eyes scanned the roof of Meredith’s car as I waited for her to speak.

“Well, are you ready?” she asked.

I shrugged.

“This is it, you know,” she said. “Your life starts here. No one to blame but yourself from here on out.”

Meredith Combs, the social worker responsible for selecting the stream of adoptive families that gave me back, wanted to talk to me about blame.

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Interviews & Essays

What is the language of flowers?

The Victorian language of flowers began with the publication of Le Language des Fleurs, written by Charlotte de Latour and printed in Paris in 1819. To create the book—which was a list of flowers and their meanings—de Latour gathered references to flower symbolism throughout poetry, ancient mythology and even medicine. The book spawned the science known as floriography, and between 1830 and 1880, hundreds of similar floral dictionaries were printed in Europe and America.

In The Language of Flowers, Victoria learns about this language as a young girl from her prospective adoptive mother Elizabeth. Elizabeth tells her that years ago, people communicated through flowers; and if a man gave a young lady a bouquet of flowers, she would race home and try to decode it like a secret message. So he would have to choose his flowers carefully.

Where did you come up with the idea to have Victoria express herself through flowers?

I’ve always loved the language of flowers. I discovered Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers in a used bookstore when I was 16, and couldn’t believe it was such a well-kept secret. How could something so beautiful and romantic be virtually unknown? When I started thinking about the book I wanted to write, Victoria and the language of flowers came to me simultaneously. I liked the complication of a young woman who has trouble connecting with others communicating through a forgotten language that almost no one understands.

Why does Victoria decide to create her own flower dictionary, and what role does it come to play in the novel?

In many ways, Victoria exists entirely on the periphery of society. So much is out of the scope of her understanding—how to get a job, how to make a friend—even how to have a conversation. But in the world of flowers, with their predictable growing habits and "non-negotiable” meanings, Victoria feels safe, comfortable, even at home. All this changes when she learns that there is more than one definition for the yellow rose—and then, through research, realizes there is more than one definition for almost every flower. She feels her grasp on the one aspect of life she believed to be solid dissolving away beneath her. In an effort to "re-order” the universe, Victoria begins to photograph and create her own dictionary, determined to never have a flower-inspired miscommunication. She decides to share that information with others—a decision that brings with it the possibility of love, connection, career, and community.

I understand Victoria’s impulse completely, and I included a dictionary in the back of the book for the same reason. If readers are inspired to send messages through flowers, I wanted there to be a complete, concise, relevant and consistent list of meanings for modern communication.

How does The Language of Flowers challenge and reconfigure our concepts of family and motherhood?

One of my favorite books is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In it, Rilke writes: "It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”

To love is difficult. To be a mother is difficult. To be a mother, alone, with few financial resources and no emotional support, is so difficult as to be nearly impossible. Yet society expects us to be able to do it, and as mothers, we expect ourselves to be able to do it as well. Our standards for motherhood are so high that many of us harbor intense, secret guilt for every harsh word we speak to our children; every negative thought that enters our minds. The pressure is so powerful that many of us never speak aloud about our challenges—especially emotional ones—because to do so would be to risk being viewed as a failure or, worse, a danger to the very children we love more than anything in the world.

With Victoria and Elizabeth, I hope to allow the reader a window inside the minds of mothers who are trying to do what is best for their children but who lack the support, resources, and/or self-confidence to succeed. The results are heartbreaking for so many mothers who find themselves unable to raise their children. It is my belief that we could prevent much child abuse and neglect if we as a society recognized the intense challenge of motherhood and offered more support for mothers who want desperately to love and care for their children.

The Language of Flowers sheds light on the foster care system in our country, something with which many of us are not intimately acquainted. Did you always know you wanted to write a story about a foster child?

I’ve always had a passion for working with young people. As my work began to focus on youth in foster care—and I eventually became a foster parent myself—I became aware of the incredible injustice of the foster care system in our country: children moving from home to home, being separated from siblings, and then being released into the world on their eighteenth birthday with little support or services. Moreover, I realized that this injustice was happening virtually unnoticed. The same sensationalized stories appear in the media over and over again: violent kids, greedy foster parents, the occasional horrific child death or romanticized adoption—but the true story of life inside the system is one that is much more complex and emotional—and it is a story that is rarely told. Foster children and foster parents, like children and adults everywhere, are trying to love and be loved, and to do the best they can with the emotional and physical resources they have. Victoria is a character that people can connect with on an emotional level—at her best and at her worst—which I hope gives readers a deeper understanding of the realities of foster care.

Victoria is such a complex and memorable character. She has so much to contribute to the world, but has so much trouble with love and forgiveness, particularly toward herself. Is she based on someone you know or have known in real life?

People often ask me if I drew inspiration for the character of Victoria from our foster son Tre’von, but Victoria is about as different from Tre’von as two people could ever be. Tre’von’s strength is his openness—he has a quick smile, a big heart, and a social grace that puts everyone around him at ease. At fourteen, running away from home barefoot on a cold January night, he had the wisdom and sense of self-preservation to knock on the door of the nearest fire station. When he was placed in foster care, he immediately began to reach out to his teachers and his principal, creating around himself a protective community of love and support.

Victoria is clearly different. She is angry and afraid, yet desperately hopeful; qualities I saw in many of the young people I worked with throughout the years. Though Victoria is entirely fictional, I did draw inspiration in bits and pieces from foster children I have known. One young woman in particular, who my husband and I mentored many years ago, was fiery and focused and distrusting and unpredictable in a manner similar to Victoria. Her history was intense: a number on her birth certificate where a name should have been; more foster homes than she could count. Still, she was resilient, beautiful, smart, and funny. We loved her completely, and she did her best to sabotage it, over and over again. To this day my husband and I regret that we couldn’t find a way to connect with her and become the stable parents she deserved.

The notion of second chances plays a major role in The Language of Flowers for many of the characters. Does this in any way relate to your personal advocacy work with emancipating foster youth?

As my four-year old daughter says to me on a regular basis: Mommy, you aren’t perfect. We all make mistakes, and we all need second chances. For youth in foster care, these mistakes are often purposeful—if not consciously so; a way to test the strength of a bond and establish trust in a new parent. A friend of mine called recently, after a year of mentoring a sixteen year-old boy, completely distraught. The young man had lied to him, and it was a major lie, one that put him in danger. My friend, in his anger, said things he regretted. My response was this: good. Your response might not have been perfect, but it was real and your concern was clear. As long as he was still committed to the young man (which he was), it didn’t so much matter what my friend had said or done; what mattered was what he did next. It mattered that he showed his mentee, through words and actions, that he still loved him, and that the young man’s mistake couldn’t change that.

The Language of Flowers is one of those stories that will stay with its readers for a very long time. What lasting impression do you wish the book to leave them?

I believe that people are spurred into action when they both see the injustice of a situation and the possibility for change. With The Language of Flowers I tried to write a book that was honest and true, but hopeful enough to inspire people to act. Each year, nearly 20,000 young people emancipate from the foster care system, many of them with nowhere to go and no one to go to for support. I am launching a non-profit with the goal to connect every emancipating foster child to a community—a book club, a women’s club, a church group—to support them through the transition to adulthood and beyond. It is my hope that readers everywhere will read my book and become inspired to partner with emancipating young people in their own communities.

If you were to represent yourself with a bouquet, which flowers would you choose and why?

Helioptrope (devoted affection), Black-Eyed Susan (justice), Hawthorn (hope), Liatris (I will try again), Lisianthus (appreciation), and Moss (maternal love). These flowers represent how I am—devoted, affectionate, maternal, and grateful—and also how I want to be—hopeful, determined, and constantly working for justice.

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Reading Group Guide

1.  A Conversation with Kate Penn and Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Kate Penn is the editor-in-chief of Floral Management Magazine, pub- lished by the Society of American Florists.

Kate Penn: What was your inspiration for this novel?

Vanessa Diffenbaugh: I started with the idea of writing a novel about the foster-care system. I’d been a foster parent for many years, and I felt it was an experience that had not been described well or often. The same sensationalized stories appear in the media over and over again: violent kids, greedy parents, the occasional hor- rific child death or romanticized adoption—but the true story of life inside the system is much more complicated and emotional. Foster children and foster parents, like children and adults everywhere, are trying to love and be loved, and to do the best they can with the emo- tional and material resources they have. With Victoria, I wanted to create a character that people could connect with on an emotional level—at her best and at her worst—which I hoped would give readers a deeper understanding of the challenges of growing up in foster care.

Kate: I found it fascinating that someone like Victoria, who is so hardened on the outside, is able to find solace in something as soft and sensitive as flowers—yet it was believable. What was your inspi- ration for her character?

Vanessa: The hardest part of writing this novel was finding the right balance in Victoria’s character. I wanted her to be tough, distrustful, and full of anger: all characteristics that would be true to her his- tory of being abandoned at birth and never knowing love. But I also wanted the reader to root for her—to understand her capacity to be gentle and loving, even before Victoria understands it herself. So in the first fifty pages of the novel she spends much of her time nurturing plants: smoothing petals, checking moisture, and cradling shocked roots. This felt like the perfect way to show both sides of her character, long before it would have been possible for me to describe her displaying affection or kindness toward another human being.

Kate: There are so many heart-wrenching chapters in Victoria’s life: when she sets the fields on fire after having made so much progress with Elizabeth; when she gives up her baby because she feels un- worthy of her love. Were these heart-wrenching to write, or do you separate yourself from your characters?

Vanessa: They were very hard to write—the scenes with the baby es- pecially. The majority of this novel flew out of me; I wrote five or six pages a day, even when I only had a few hours to work. But the scenes with the baby were different. I could often write only a sentence or two before I had to go and lie down. It was intense to be inside the head of a woman on the verge of neglecting her own child, yet telling this part of Victoria’s story felt essential to me. I had recently become a new mother myself, and I understood the challenge of caring for a newborn even within the context of a supportive family. Because of this, it was easy for me to imagine the overwhelming emotions of trying to parent completely alone, as Victoria attempts to do, and I wanted the reader to feel these emotions as well. Victoria wants desperately to be a good mother, but she lacks the support, re- sources, and self-confidence to succeed. The result is heartbreaking, as it is for so many women who find themselves unable to care for their children. It is my belief that we could prevent much child abuse and neglect in our country if we understood the intense challenge of motherhood and offered more support to women who want to love and care for their families.

Kate: You clearly love and appreciate flowers—but do you have a favorite?

Vanessa: I do love flowers—and it’s hard to choose just one! My favorites vary with the season and the occasion. I have flowers that I adore visually (anemone) and others I favor for their meaning (gentian: intrinsic worth). But here are my all-time favorites: cherry blossoms (the combination of exquisite beauty and fleeting imper- manence always takes my breath away), tulips (the vivid colors; the way they continue to grow even when cut, as if they are reaching out to declare their love), and ranunculus (the red, orange, and pink combined—I don’t think anything could be more radiant).

Kate: Mother Ruby plays a small but important role in the novel, and I found her absolutely enchanting. Tell me about your inspira- tion for her, and why she is important to the story.

Vanessa: With a debut novel, readers are often curious about what aspects of the book are based on the author’s own life; Mother Ruby and Victoria’s home birth are two of the aspects of the book that feel the most personal. My first child was born at home, and I had a phenomenal midwife. She had been delivering babies for almost three decades when I met her, and her intuition—her ability to know exactly what to do and say to support a healthy delivery—was astounding. There’s a line in my book where Mother Ruby says: “You’re the only one that can get this baby out.” This is something my midwife said to me during my labor, and it was a turning point in my delivery. There are so few moments in life like this: when you’re faced with a challenge that you, and you alone, have the ability to solve. But giving birth, especially at home, far from the accou- trements of modern medicine, is one of them. In that moment I understood that it was just me and my body, and I knew I had to get it done. When it came to writing Victoria’s birth scene, this moment felt right not just for the birth but as a turning point for her charac- ter. There were so many things she was trying to avoid, and, finally, here was one thing she had no choice but to face. Then, when she saw that she was capable of the task before her, it changed something inside her in a very permanent way.

Kate: There are parts of the novel—particularly when Victoria works with Renata and then develops her own client base—that sug- gest that flowers have an almost magical power, the ability to help someone discover her unique gifts, or even achieve her dreams. Was this your intent—and do you think flowers indeed have a magical power?

Vanessa: The power of flowers has been well documented: A study from Rutgers University shows that flowers increase feelings of en- joyment and satisfaction, and Harvard researchers found that people feel less anxious and more compassionate in the presence of flowers. But I never meant for the flowers in my book to be seen as magical. I believe that Victoria’s success comes from her ability to listen, ask questions, and help her customers identify exactly what they are looking for in their lives. Earl, for example, comes into Bloom asking for flowers that will make his wife “happy”—but when pressed, he re- alizes it isn’t happiness at all that he’s looking for, but rather con- nection and communication. So many people walk around with a vague feeling of discontentment without ever understanding what it is that’s making them feel dissatisfied. Through her conversations with her customers, Victoria helps them become clear about what it is they want in their lives. The bouquets she creates for them are physical manifestations of these desires, and when customers leave her shop with flowers in their hands, they do so believing change to be imminent. In my experience, it is this belief that has the power to transform lives.

Kate: I so want to believe that children who are raised in the foster- care system, under less than ideal circumstances, possibly suffering from attachment disorder, can eventually learn to love themselves and others, as Victoria does. Based on your experience fostering chil- dren, can this happen? If so, what does it take?

Vanessa: I absolutely believe they can, and there is new research that offers proof it is possible. For many years, severe attachment disor- ders were thought of almost like a life sentence. Study after study il- lustrated that early relationships between caregivers and infants actually shape the circuits of the brain and lay the foundation for later developmental outcomes—from academic performance and in- terpersonal skills to physical and mental health. But new research out of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University shows that the brain retains its ability to change far into life. Learn- ing to securely attach at any time in one’s life—to a caregiver (as Vic- toria does with Elizabeth) or even to a partner (as Victoria does with Grant)—has the ability to “rewire” circuits in the brain. This is hope- ful research for those like Victoria, who are determined to overcome the trauma they have experienced and learn to love themselves and others.

Kate: Do you have any particular hopes about what readers might take away from the book, or how reader perspectives, actions, and attitudes might change as a result of experiencing Victoria’s journey? That readers will turn to flowers to communicate their feelings? Or have more empathy and understanding of individuals in the foster care system?

Vanessa: Yes, both! I’ve heard so many readers say they will never look at flowers the same way again, and I certainly felt this way after learning about the Victorian language of flowers. It has been such a fun discovery for me. Sending a message through flowers—especially now, when technology has made most communication instant and digital—feels extremely satisfying. Of course, not all my readers will feel this way (and some will never forgive me for attaching a negative definition to their favorite flower!) but I do hope that many find as much joy in giving and receiving message-laden flowers as I have.
In terms of foster care, I have already seen an incredible out- pouring of support for young people transitioning out of the sys- tem. Readers all over the country have connected with Victoria’s journey and want to know what they can do to help. In an attempt to harness this generosity of spirit, I have helped to launch a nonprofit organization, Camellia Network. The mission of Camellia Network is to activate networks of citizens in every community to provide the critical support young people need to transition from foster care to adulthood. We are specifically reaching out to book clubs, because we believe that small groups of concerned citizens have the power to change outcomes for youth emancipating in their communities. Visit our website (www.camellianetwork.org) to get more details about how you can help.

2. Review by Paula McLain

Paula McLain is the New York Times best-selling author of The Paris Wife. She grew up in Fresno, California where, after being abandoned by both parents, she spent fourteen years in the foster-care system. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, she has taught literature and creative writing for many years, and cur- rently lives with her children in Cleveland, Ohio.

I feel it’s only fair to warn you, dear reader, that Vanessa Diffen- baugh’s central character, Victoria Jones, is going to break your heart three ways from Sunday. She’s also going to make you want to pick her up, shake her, and scream, why can’t you let yourself be happy? But for Victoria, the answer is as complex as the question is simple. She’s spent her childhood ricocheting through countless foster and group homes, and the experience has left her in pieces. Painfully isolated and deeply mistrustful, she cares only about flowers and their mean- ings. She herself is like a thistle, a wall of hard-earned thorns.
When we first encounter Victoria, it’s the day of her eman- cipation from foster care, her eighteenth birthday. Emancipation couldn’t be a more ironic word for this moment. For Victoria, as for most foster-care survivors—myself included—freedom really means free fall. She has nowhere to go, no resources, no one who cares about her. She ends up sleeping in a public park, tending a garden of pil- fered blossoms and living on her wits. Only when a local florist sees Victoria’s special way with flowers is she given a means to survive.

But survival is just the beginning. The more critical question is, will Victoria let herself love and be loved?
The storyline weaves skillfully between the heavy burden of Victoria’s childhood—her time with Elizabeth, the foster mother who taught her the language of flowers and also wounded her more deeply than Victoria can bear to remember—and the gauntlet of her present relationship with Grant, a flower vendor who’s irrevocably linked to the darkest secret of her past. At its core, The Language of Flowers is a meditation on redemption, and on how even the most profoundly damaged might learn to forgive and be forgiven. By opening up Victoria’s very difficult inner world to us, Vanessa Diff- enbaugh shows us a corner of experience hidden to most, with an astonishing degree of insight and compassion. So hold on, and keep the tissue box nearby. This is a book you won’t soon forget.

3. Questions for Discussion

1. What potential do Elizabeth, Renata, and Grant see in Victoria that she has a hard time seeing in herself?

2. While Victoria has often been hungry and malnourished in her life, food ends up meaning more than just nourishment to her. What significance does food take on in the book?

3. Victoria and Elizabethbeth struggle with the idea of being par tof a family. What does it mean to you to be part of a family? What defines family?

4. Why do you think Elizabeth waits so long before trying to patch things up with her long-lost sister Catherine? What is the impetus for her to do so?

5. The first week after her daughter’s birth goes surprisingly well for Victoria. What makes Victoria feel unable to care for her child after that week ends? And what allows her to ultimately rejoin her family?

6. One of the themes of the book is the idea of forgiveness, of second chances—do you think Victoria deserves a second chance after the things she did (both as a child and as an adult)? What about Catherine? And Elizabeth?

7. What did you think of the structure of the book—the alternating chapters in the past and the present? In what ways did the two storylines parallel each other, and how did they diverge?

8. The novel touches on many themes (love, family, forgiveness, second chances). Which do you think is the most important? And what did you think was ultimately the book’s lesson?

9. At the end of the novel, Victoria learns that moss grows with- out roots. What does this mean, and why is it such a revelation for her?

10. Based on your reading of the novel, what are your impressions of the foster-care system in America? What could be improved?

11. Knowing what you now know about the language of flowers, to whom would you send a bouquet, and what would you want it to say?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 586 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(343)

4 Star

(153)

3 Star

(50)

2 Star

(16)

1 Star

(24)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 586 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 22, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Incredible book! Must read.

    The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

    To put it simply, this book is brilliant. Any book that can make me cry, yell, gasp in horror, and feel such compassion for its characters is exceptional. Because this story was told, a part of me has been changed forever.

    Young Victoria Jones had no voice. Life had been cruel to her, and she had no say in where, or with whom she would live it. For nine years, she led a distrustful, broken, and neglected existence throughout numerous foster homes. That is, until she was brought to the endless rolling San Francisco vineyards and farmhouse belonging to Elizabeth, her new foster mother. Here she was introduced to a fresh beginning, and inadvertently a voice; the language of flowers.

    Troubles and heartache seemed to follow Victoria. Sometimes she battled them, oftentimes they overcame her; but an underlying strength burned in her battered heart, fueling her search for peace, belonging, and love.

    I plan on re-reading this book-slower, savoring each delicate, heartrending page. The Language of Flowers is a unique bouquet, compiled of Lavender (Mistrust) Heath (Solitude) Fennel (Strength) and Hawthorne (Hope). The beauty and scent of its blossoms will linger with me for quite some time.

    36 out of 37 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 28, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Very good

    I enjoyed reading this book. The story was smart, interesting and entertaining! I highly recommend this book

    21 out of 23 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 11, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Sad and beautiful

    This is a story of of needing to learn how to love. That seems unbelievable, doesn't it? Love just happens. We love our family, we love our friends, we love. We love. But, what if we never had a family, or a friend. What if a child were abandoned by her mother, the first person who would love her? What if she spent ten years with no one showing love, no one to turn to, not even a friend? What happens to love then? Victoria knew the answer. She knew what happens when one spends ten years without love. It becomes unattainable, or seems to. It becomes unbelievable, doesn't it? It becomes impossible. Victoria knew that. She also knew that no one would ever love her, and she set out to make it so. The sadness of Victoria and her spare, hollow life is a tangible thing. It is apparent to Renata, the woman who looked at a gaunt and empty young girl, and decided to try to help. She was careful to only help a little, lest she frighten Victoria away. She was circumspect and a little bit kind. She did what no one before, had managed to do. Victoria allowed her to become a friend. What happens in the days that follow are remarkable. The story grows like a vine around circumstance and coincidence. But then, some say, there is no coincidence. Some things are just meant to be. The journey that Victoria takes after meeting Renata, who is my personal hero in this story, is a journey with many twists, many turns, and many obstacles. But most journeys end somewhere, even if it is only at the beginning of a new journey. The back story, where we learn the language of flowers has its own elegance and beauty. I liked this book. Recommended

    20 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2011

    Read this book!

    I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of this book. I read it straight through this weekend. This book has all the elements of a best seller--a page turning plot, flawed but likeable and believable characters, and thought-provoking themes. The book has a lot to say about broad themes--around family, love, and motherhood--and also offers an introduction to the foster care system and the Victorian language of flowers! I am amazed at the way the author took these seemingly unrelated subjects and wove them into the book in a totally entrancing and believable way.
    This book is well-written and offers so many topics for discussion, making it a great selection for book groups. I think young people will enjoy the book too, as they will relate to the main character's struggle to define her own identity. My recommendation: when this book is published, read it. You'll be glad you did.

    13 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 8, 2011

    Loved it!

    I was lucky enough to have received this book as an ARE, since it will come out in August. I cannot speak highly enough about this story or about the writing. I read it in a few days, and I was completely captivated from the first few words.
    The writing is flawless, the imagery so tightly woven that as you turn the pages you become ensnared in the smell and color of the flowers that haunt the lines. The story itself is a beautiful, honest look at the foster care system, its many, many faults and few positive sides. As a foster mother herself, the author is a perfect voice to speak for these children who are not blessed with families.
    The main character, Victoria, is a very special person. She's hard to get to know and understand, sometimes even making the reader frustrated at her many self-destructive behaviors, but we come to love the way her head works. We root (no pun intended) for her, we grieve for her past and her troubled present and we can't help but be hopeful about her petal-strewn future.
    I recommend this book to everyone. I hope to see lines in front of every bookstore to buy it on the day it comes out. I promise you, you will never think about flowers in the same way again.

    11 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 27, 2011

    Beautiful and Thought Provoking - A Story of Second Chances

    When I was approached by Random House to read this book, I was fascinated by the premise of the book. I was also interested because it was the author's first novel. I just wish I hadn't let it fall down in my pile of books to read. Once I started this book, I struggled with the fact that I couldn't put it down, yet I didn't want the story to end.

    The character of Victoria took me back to my early social work days of working with juveniles in alternative high schools and group homes. It reminded me of some of the kids who left an impression on me and made me wonder....where are they now? All would be adults by now. How are they doing? Was there someone there to help them transition into the adult world?

    I liked how the author flipped back and forth from Victoria's childhood in foster care to her current life as an adult. It made the story move faster and gave you the history you needed at the time you needed it. I can't say I had a favorite character, because I loved each of the them in their own special way, but Elizabeth and Renata were amazingly strong, patient and caring women that I would love to know. I also loved that a certain person in the novel was named Hazel Jones. My grandmother was Hazel Jones, and she also was a flower lover and passed that on to my mom and to me even though I never met her.

    I loved the history and language of the flowers. It was fascinating and made me look at flowers in a whole new light. I have a new flower garden that we will be planning for next spring and I am thinking differently about the types of flowers I want to plant in there.

    This novel touched on many different topics that would encourage lots of discussion including forgiveness, love, heartbreak, despair, hope, and second chances. We all make mistakes, so shouldn't we all deserve second, or maybe even third, fourth and fifth chances? This novel makes you believe second chances must be given and received.

    THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS is powerful, engaging, enchanting, thought provoking, and beautiful. When I got to the final chapter of the book, I was sad and torn. I wanted to get to find out what happened, but didn't want the story to end. This one is a keeper on my bookshelf and I have a feeling it would be on yours too. Run out and get this book today!

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 6, 2011

    Good Read

    I read the reviews and took a chance, there are alot of pros and cons in this book, make your own decision. This book is hauntingly sad and bittersweet. I felt that Victoria was left holding the bag as many unwanted children are, on the other hand she is also frustrating! I feel sad for her and mad at her all at the same time, she is without a doubt one of the most frustrating people. She has no real personality it seems and its impossible for her to have any genuine relationships. While I can understand because of her childhood why she would be angry and mistrustful, she is in a word....feral. I feel like she never truly lets go of her past and is unaccepting of her future even though shes doing well, she seems wholly unappreciative of the oppurtunity she has and chucks it away with both hands. I thought that the ending felt rushed and should have gone further into detail. I think the other characters were great, the use of flowers was great,the book itself was lovely but victoria just pissed me off!Overall a good read......

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 28, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Truly moving and heartwarming.

    Holding everyone at arms length, trusting no one, Victoria is the product of ill-treatment having been raised in multiple foster care. She recounts searing years of abuse and neglect that will make you cringe. Abandoned as an infant, Victoria was shuffled through the foster care system until age 9, when her last chance at being adopted failed miserably. Elizabeth, her foster care mother when she was 9, taught her the language of flowers. Since then, she'd been in group homes. Victoria uses the flower language in her job in a florist shop as an adult to create bouquets with messages. This form of communication gives hope to the storyline when she meets a flower vender who shares her ability to communicate with and through flowers. Truly moving and heart warming.

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 13, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    "THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS" (REVIEW)

    "THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS" BY VANESSA DIFFENBAUGH

    We've always been told that flowers have meanings and Victoria Jones knows that better than anyone. After spending most of better than anyone. After spending most of her life in the foster care system, she soon ends up living in a public park where she starts her own garden until she is taken in by a florist that is surprised at her abilities with plants.

    This book is beautifully written and makes you realize just how wonderful the world can be. With a bit of mystery and secrecy tossed in this book it's intriguing. Don't miss out on this one!

    -Kitty Bullard / Great Minds Think Aloud Book Club

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 15, 2011

    Worth Every Penny

    Bought it and had it completly read in 24 hours - couldn't put it down! Looking forward to more from this author in the future!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 15, 2011

    highly recommend it!!!

    What a wonderful book!!! For a while now i have been reading books and putting them down immediately and moving on to the next hoping to find a book to draw my attention. This book did it!!! Couldn't put it down read it in two days and I keep rereading it!! Survival, love, motherhood, forgiveness, all wrapped into one!! It moved me so much that the tears kept falling!!! Read it!!!

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2011

    Could not put this book down.

    I am a James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark fan.

    This book kept my interest all the way through. I can see where this could be movie material.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 26, 2011

    Flowers used for Expression

    When emotions are too raw, flowers become a catalyst for expression. Foster child Victoria, abandoned as an infant, shuttled from foster home to foster home until she is 9 years old. At 9 she becomes the foster daughter of Elizabeth, a grape farmer. Isolated from the world herself, Elizabeth pulls Victoria into her 'family' in the hopes of adoption.
    Flowers and their language is a skill Elizabeth teaches Victoria over the course of the next year.
    Victoria learns and takes in so much that when she is released from the foster care system at age 18 she eventually finds herself back with flowers, working for a florist named Renata.
    Excelling in her knowledge of flowers and their expression of emotion, Victoria begins to make a name for herself in the floral world. Victoria continues to struggle with her own sense of belonging and self-worth that follows her in a relationship with Grant. Unable to express herself, Grant and Victoria begin a flower dictionary of expressions.
    Fears of not knowing how to belong, of feeling inadequate causes Victoria to jeopardize her own happiness. Will she be able to pull out of herself and find the love she deserves?
    Amazing look into the depth of flowers and a creation of a floral dictionary, detailed with their origin and meanings. I had never given much thought to the depth flowers could express, depth of emotion when our uncertainties make our words unavailable.
    Great focus on the foster care system and the need for programs to integrate these 18 year olds into adulthood, into a society where they can feel they finally belong.
    Told with heart and deep emotions, both verbal and through flowers.
    Unique and Powerful!

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 20, 2011

    Wonderful book

    As i read the reviews for this book and heard everyone say how they couldnt put it down i must admit i was sceptical... ive heard that line too many times and never said it myself. This book is causing me for the first time to actually say i couldnt put it down. This is one of the most wonderful books i have ever read. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone and will most likely read it again myself. It is sad, hopeful, and full of meaning. I will never look at flowers the same. Get this book... it is well worth every penny

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 20, 2011

    Loved it.

    Loved it. That's all

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 12, 2011

    Hang in there-it's worth finishing!

    I have to admit that I almost didn't finish this book. I'd begun to have the feeling that the time invested wasn't going to be worth it by the time I got to the end of the book. Boy, was I wrong!! It quickly showed me that there was so much more to come and I couldn't put it down. It follows the morphing of a foster child from one with serious issues to a woman who understands and gives love and commitment. It's beautifully written, almost poetic in parts, and a cast of supporting characters who are fascinating in their own right. Loved it and I know you will too!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 26, 2012

    Heart Wrenching Book!

    Victoria, a defiant child, is brought up in the foster care system and is so hardened on the outside that she is unable to feel love. She finds solace and communicates her feelings through flowers. This is a heart wrenching story ... a story that you won't soon forget about forgiveness and second chances. I'm looking forward to more books from this gifted writer.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2012

    Even though Diffenbaugh has only witnessed the difficult life le

    Even though Diffenbaugh has only witnessed the difficult life lead by people like Victoria, she understands what its like to be in her position. The characters are real and they provide a new perspective on the people we never notice. The story is different and fresh, emotional and honest. It actually inspired me to write a similar story for essay for a college application.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2012

    It has been some time since i read a book that did not let me sl

    It has been some time since i read a book that did not let me sleep at night, that I just would wake up at 2-3am because I just wanted to see what happen next, this was a beautiful told story, very heartfelt and real, i came across it by chance, i had spend some time unable to find what to read next and wondering thru the aisles i found this treasure, that i just felt in love with, and that i have recommended to all of my friends and everyone who reads this review. I highly recommend this. This story deserves to be seen on the big screen after you have read it of course.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2012

    Amazing book

    This is a well written, heart wrenching story with a very unique theme, communicating through the meaning of flowers. I could not put it down!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 586 Customer Reviews

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