“A rose is a rose is a rose,” Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) once wrote. Vanessa Diffenbaugh might not agree. The language of flowers is never simple; rather, it is often complex, with multiple meanings. A daisy signifies innocence. Ivy implies fidelity. The meaning of a yellow rose, however, is not as clear-cut. In some cases, the yellow rose symbolizes jealousy, while in other instances it indicates infidelity.
It is only fitting, then, that Victoria Jones is every bit as complicated as the yellow rose. Jones is the main character in Diffenbaugh’s debut novel The Language of Flowers.
Rumor has it there was a bidding war among nine (yes, count them, nine) publishers for this wonderful book, and readers will quickly understand the reason why. In alternating chapters, Diffenbaugh weaves together two timelines, past and present, with seamless grace and ease.
Growing up is hard to do, especially when you are maneuvering through the difficulties of being a foster child. On her eighteenth birthday, Victoria is “emancipated,” meaning she is considered an adult and therefore phases out of state care. First, she goes to a half-way house, but soon she takes off abruptly. She has no job, no place to live, and seeks shelter in a park.
The reader learns early on how much Victoria loves flowers and they seem to love her. Flowers are easier to deal with for Victoria than people are. Victoria makes her home in a small garden. A local florist recognizes her talent, despite her inexperience, and offers Victoria a job. This leads to her renting a room and meeting a man from her past.
In the other timeline, the reader learns a very young Victoria went to live with a woman named Elizabeth. After a rocky start, the two grew to understand, accept, and even love each other.
But we know it’s not meant to be from the beginning. Otherwise, Victoria would never have been a ward of the state at seventeen. We also know that something horrible happens to separate the new “mother” and “daughter,” and it is heartbreaking both for us and for Victoria.
Past and present meet as the story plays out a satisfying denouement.
The characters in The Language of Flowers are all flawed. Their imperfections in no way detract from the novel; in fact, their faults actually add to the story and make the individuals more real.
Perhaps the most flawed is Victoria; then again she has every reason to be. I loved and hated Victoria in equal measure. She lashes out when she hungers for acceptance. She hits when she most craves a gentle touch. She destroys worlds when she only wants to be loved.
Diffenbaugh explores the bonds of motherhood in her debut. In fact, each character in the novel seems to have issues with his or her mother. There are pushy mothers, absent mothers, and unsure mothers. The author awed me when she showed how Victoira felt something was literally and figuratively sucking her very life-blood from her.
Diffenbaugh also gently reminds us that we can create our own versions of family. Victoria needs help in her own floral business and seeks assistance from her fellow foster kids. One, Marlena, comes to the rescue. Marlena, in turn, later hires her own former foster kids to help. Talk about paying it forward.
The Language of Flowers is also a scathing critique of the foster care system in America. Diffenbaugh should know. She and her husband are foster parents to three children.
I feel I must insert a rhododendron here (To those who do not know, a rhododendron means beware). This novel might make readers cry, as it made me. Grab a hankie and continue reading. The Language of Flowers is one of my picks for best novel of the year. Diffenbaugh, in her powerful first novel, will certainly cause readers to rethink their gardening choices!