At one point in Vanessa Diffenbaugh's compelling debut novel, her heroine, Victoria, struggles to learn the complicated intricacies of a manual film camera. The flower she chooses as the subject of her photographic experiments is a white rose. This might seem like an easy choice, or maybe one guided by aesthetics or popular preference. But anyone who flips to the back of THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS, where Diffenbaugh includes her own glossary of flower varieties and their meanings, will find this definition under Rose, White (Rosa): "A heart unacquainted with love." There could not be a more fitting description for Victoria herself.
"Women, especially, will respond to this narrative on both an emotional, almost visceral, level and a literary one."
To be fair, Victoria has not been entirely unacquainted with love; it's just that she's utterly unable to recognize its presence or possibilities, either in herself or in the people who surround her. When we first meet Victoria, she has just turned 18 and therefore aged out of foster care. Her brief stay in transitional housing is a disaster; she bides her time until she's evicted for failure to pay her rent, all the while building up a collection of plants and flowers that she transplants to a San Francisco park. This handmade garden is a place of solace for her throughout the novel, where she retreats when she finds herself repeatedly homeless or simply unable to trust the people and emotions she's meeting for the first time.
Victoria's gift for growing things does not go unnoticed; in fact, it lands her a part-time job at a florist, helping the shop owner, Renata, buy flowers and make wedding bouquets. Her natural aptitude for picking just the right flower for her customers has more to it than an eye for beauty, however. Victoria has an abiding belief in the symbolism of flowers, the "language" of flowers popular during the Victorian era.
In alternating chapters interspersed with scenes from Victoria's present, readers see where Victoria, then an angry and largely unlovable 10-year-old, first encountered this symbolic language. Finally placed with Elizabeth, a foster mother who seems ready and able to love her, Victoria can't quite let herself recognize love, even when it reaches out and seizes her. Elizabeth, though, is haunted by her own past demons, and their often volatile relationship has the potential to destroy itself --- and shape all of Victoria's future prospects of happiness.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh's novel offers many different models of motherhood, from Renata and Elizabeth's pseudo-maternity that looks an awful lot like the real thing, to Victoria's mother who abandoned her as an infant, to mothers who smother or panic or simply go insane. Women, especially, will respond to this narrative on both an emotional, almost visceral, level and a literary one. Her language is evocative without being flowery, and her characterization of Victoria, in particular, is gutsy --- it's daring to write a character you know not everyone will like.
Diffenbaugh herself is an experienced foster mother and the founder of an advocacy group devoted to the topic of foster care, and it's clear that THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS is written with certain social awareness goals in mind. It's unfortunate that, at times, Victoria's "foster kid" past --- whose details go largely unwritten --- is proffered unquestioningly as an excuse for nearly inexcusable behaviors. That being said, Diffenbaugh's portrayal of her main character is bold and compassionate, and, in the end, hopeful.
"I had loved, more than once," Victoria finally recognizes near the book's close. "I just hadn't recognized the emotion for what it was until I had done everything within my power to destroy it." Some may find certain elements of Victoria's happy ending unrealistic, but many more will embrace her journey as joyful, courageous and victorious, the kind of messages oregano, black poplar and spirea could say without words.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 5, 2011
The Language of Flowers