Victoria Jones is often sullen silent, and hostile, but she speaks the language of flowers. She knows that red roses signify love. The primrose means childhood, which she never really had growing up in a series of foster homes and institutions in northern California. The hawthorn means hope, which Victoria ran out of after never being adopted and then turned out of foster care and left on her own when she turned 18.
Victoria is the central character in The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh's debut novel, which explores the complexities of foster care.
Aging out of the foster care system convinces Victoria to be suspicious of all attachments. She sleeps in the park and does odd jobs in a flower shop for small change, until the power of flowers opens her life.
Victoria has a hard time trusting people, Diffenbaugh tells Weekend Edition host Scott Simon.
"I've worked with foster kids a long time, and I think that this is something that foster kids — and really all of us — struggle with to some extent," she says. "If you've been hurt, as Victoria has many, many times, it's hard to learn how to trust again."
Victoria does have a connection with flowers. The flowers also represent something that Victoria is good at, Diffenbaugh says.
"There aren't always, especially in low-income communities, the arts and the dance and the drama and the things that can really show a kid, look, even if I'm three years behind in math, there's something I'm good at that can help me be successful in life," she says. "And I think for Victoria that's what the flowers give her is a sense of success."
Diffenbaugh and her husband are foster parents, and while she says the novel is "100 percent fiction," the book does draw on some of her personal experiences. Victoria's character was inspired by a young woman whom Diffenbaugh had mentored.
"She had a very serious attachment disorder. She'd been born into the foster care system, she had a number on her birth certificate, and she didn't even know who named her," Diffenbaugh says. "There were brief moments when I felt that I knew her, and I loved her, and I knew that she was capable of loving me back, but I could never quite get through to her."
Victoria keeps going to different families, but no one wants to keep her — until she meets Elizabeth when she is 9. When they first meet, Victoria lets Elizabeth know she's aware of the rules.
"You can't poison me or give me medicine I don't want. Or hit me — even if I deserve it," Victoria says.
Elizabeth responds by telling her, "If I were trying to poison you, I would give you foxglove or hydrangea ... depending on how much pain I wanted you to feel and what message I was trying to communicate."
She then tells Victoria she's giving her starwort, a flower that means welcome. The talk of flowers piques the young girl's interest, but she remains outwardly guarded.
"They look like daisies to me," Victoria says. "And I still think they're poisonous."
Diffenbaugh says foster parents should expect to be tested.
"You have to really prove yourself to young people," she says, "and if your answer is clear and consistent and loving — even if it's angry and disappointed — what's important is that you're being real and honest and not going anywhere."
As much as Diffenbaugh loves flowers, she says, the focus of the book is foster care.
"I certainly sat down to write a book about foster care and to really try to tell the complexities of the emotional life ... of trying to love someone who has never been loved and is learning to love you back," she says.
The flower angle emerged organically as Diffenbaugh sat down to write the book. The first scene she wrote is one that takes place in the flower market. A man looks at Victoria in a way she doesn't like, so she later brings him rhododendron, meaning beware.
"And it wasn't premeditated, it was just that this young woman who was so hurt and so outside of society in every way," Diffenbaugh says, "and she needed some way to connect and communicate, and the language of flowers was really what felt right."
Being given up at birth, Diffenbaugh says, can evoke "a lot of feelings of unworthiness," regardless of the reason the parents gave up the child.
"I think that the hardest thing about working with young people in foster care who've been through this kind of neglect and abuse is really to convince them that they are worthy of being loved," she says. "And I think because often they don't feel worthy of it, that's why they push people away."
There is no shortage of parentless characters in literature — one need only look to Dickens to find enough foundlings to fill an orphanage. In lesser supply are narratives about what happens to stray children once they leave the group system and filter into foster homes. Not that this isn't fertile ground for heartbreak — for every story about a child being placed with a loving and nurturing family, there are many more accounts of violent abuse and squalid living conditions. Teenagers find the system especially difficult; wanted by few or kicked out of homes along the way, many of them end up spending the years until emancipation inside group homes, the dorms for the battered and beaten.
This is where we first meet Victoria, the heroine of Vanessa Diffenbaugh's moving, if not somewhat clunky, debut novel The Language of Flowers. Victoria is 18 and preparing to exit state supervision after a life spent in and out of foster care; she has no money, no employment and no close human relationships. Released into bustling San Francisco, the only thing she can think to do is to squat in Dolores Park, where she sleeps under a thin blanket and spends her days tending to a flower garden.
Flowers, we quickly learn, are Victoria's singular passion, the force that has kept her alive through the psychological and physical trauma of her youth. Her connection to blossoms is deeper than pure aesthetics; when she was 10 years old, Victoria learned the secret language of flowers, a code that dates back to Victorian England. Her teacher was her last foster mother, Elizabeth (she went through more than 10 families), the only woman who would ever show Victoria true affection. Though her relationship with Elizabeth dissolves in the face of official adoption (the breakdown of their bond is chronicled over the course of the novel), Victoria cherishes her weathered floral dictionary and carries its knowledge with her, even into the uncertainty of homelessness.
Given this aromatic premise, it makes sense that Ballantine reportedly paid upwards of $1 million for the novel and is throwing much of its energy and budget into the book's release. The combination of harrowing orphan story and delicate exploration of a Victorian art form will be catnip for book clubs and airborne readers. The language of flowers, as illuminated through Victoria's words and a special appendix, turns out to be an addictive preoccupation: Once you know that peonies represent anger; basil, hate; and red carnations, heartbreak, every supermarket bouquet takes on a new significance.
The most naturally alluring parts of Diffenbaugh's novel are those that deal directly with Victoria's magical way with blooms. Tired of languishing in the park, she convinces a local florist to let her work as an apprentice. Armed with her secret knowledge, Victoria is soon creating nosegays that have an almost supernatural effect on her customers. It is her distinguished work in the flower shop that leads Victoria back to the tumultuous memories of her years with Elizabeth, and eventually into a more peaceful future. She even uses flowers to fall in love, communicating with a wholesale blossom dealer through the codes — the only language Victoria has to express her emotions.
As invigorating as this language is as a literary device, it does border on a gimmick — the overreaching and common curse of debut novels. It all seems to tie together too neatly: Victoria's name as it relates to old England, the fact that her love interest is a perfect link to her lost past, the rushed and overly saccharine ending. Where Diffenbaugh sees plot holes, she simply fills them with flowers.
With its fragrant prose, The Language of Flowers may be overly intoxicating at times, but it does accomplish the important task of shedding light on the broken foster care system. Diffenbaugh, who as a young teacher in East Palo Alto adopted a foster child of her own, has said she started out writing a much more serious exploration of the subject, and only brought in her own fascination with antiquated floral messages to lighten things up. In doing so, she has, intentionally or not, suggested that the thorns of abuse are often inseparable from abundant bouquets of beauty. In Victoria's case, these sweet-scented sprays allow her to bravely speak of the bitterness of life.