“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.”
And so begins The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, and I am awake until the early morning hours because I can’t bring myself to stop reading. It is only when I hear my husband’s alarm, at three in the morning, that I realize how much time has passed. I force myself to sleep, so I can wake up and finish. When I do, I close the book, and think it was a novel I wish I had written.
Victoria Jones, the protagonist, is at once haunting, engaging and achingly real. Flashbacks to her ten-year-old self in the foster care system break you open. At eighteen, she is released from the system and begins to make her way through the world. It’s not pretty…she’s distrusting, hesitant, and awkward. Yet, she communicates through her extensive knowledge of flowers, their meaning, their ability to reflect feelings and emotions.
I found myself, at points, exhausted from pulling for her and urging her on because for a woman who can see with such deep clarity into others, she remains an enigma to herself. She makes a sacrifice that, as a mother myself, I found sacrificial and so reflective of her hesitancy to allow herself to feel deeply for another human being after her own experiences.
I hesitate to reveal too much in this review because what I loved about this novel was its surprising twists and discoveries. It was unlike anything I had ever read, and I only wish I could read it again for the first time.
Don’t just read this novel. Savor it.
ABOUT THE BOOK
The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, aster for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, 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, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes that she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market inspires her to question 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.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh was born in San Francisco and raised in Chico, California. After studying creative writing and education at Stanford, she went on to teach art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband, PK, have three children: Tre’von, eighteen; Chela, four; and Miles, three. Tre’von, a former foster child, is attending New York University on a Gates Millennium Scholarship. Diffenbaugh and her family currently live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her husband is studying urban school reform at Harvard.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh is also the founder of the Camellia Network. The mission of the Camellia Network is to create a nationwide movement to support youth transitioning from foster care. In The Language of Flowers, Camellia [kuh-meel-yuh] means “My Destiny is in Your Hands.” The network’s name emphasizes the belief in the interconnectedness of humanity: each gift a young person receives will be accompanied by a camellia, a reminder that the destiny of our nation lies in the hands of our youngest citizens.
Thank you to Pump Up Your Book and Vanessa Diffenbaugh for the review copy of this novel.