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.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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.
“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.
What People are Saying About This
“[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
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?