Each year, nearly 20,000 young people “age out” of America’s foster care system, and many of them have nowhere to go. Writer Vanessa Diffenbaugh has transformed this sad statistic into an extraordinary debut novel.
The focus of a fierce bidding war among publishers, The Language of Flowers tells the visceral and deeply touching story of Victoria, a teen who has been discharged from foster care, leaving her alone and emotionally barricaded. It’s also a compelling story about spiritual hunger and the power of nature—and human connection—to help heal hearts.
“My book is helping to tell a story that needs to be told.”
“It came pouring out of me,” Diffenbaugh says of the six-month process of writing the book. “It was about a year and a half from the time I started it to the time I sold it. Pretty quick for a first-time novel and a bunch of kids in the house,” Diffenbaugh laughs, as she juggles a bit of background chaos, plus kids and a babysitter’s schedule, at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Set in San Francisco and Napa Valley, The Language of Flowers draws heavily on Diffenbaugh’s upbringing in Northern California, with its fertile farms and vineyards, as well as her experience as a foster parent. Born in San Francisco, she studied creative writing at Stanford and taught art and writing to young people in low-income communities before becoming a full-time parent. She and her husband, PK Diffenbaugh, have two biological children, and have fostered children throughout their marriage. They recently moved from California to Cambridge, first dropping their foster son Tre’von, 18, at New York University, which he is attending on a Gates Millennium Scholarship.
In the novel, Diffenbaugh takes two strands—nature and created family—and spins them into an absorbing story that is as complicated and exhilarating as any human relationship. But instead of reading like a polemic disguised as fiction, The Language of Flowers i[Thu Jul 24 16:08:51 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. s full of startling and masterful dialogue, intense, emotional scenes that crackle and come alive as they unspool, and flawed yet sympathetic characters.
“As you can tell, I’m passionate about two things: writing and helping kids in foster care,” Diffenbaugh says. “I could recite statistics that would blow your mind about what is happening to these kids, especially as they emancipate from the system—25 percent become homeless within two years—but you’re not going to . . . feel empowered to do something about it if you haven’t had some kind of connection with a story that helps you feel on an emotional level. My book is helping to tell a story that needs to be told.”
Narrated by Victoria in flashbacks, the novel follows her life as she bounces from one foster situation to the next until she’s emancipated from foster care at 18. Her most significant relationship is with Elizabeth, a gardener who grew up on a Northern California vineyard and is now estranged from her family. Elizabeth introduces her to the Victorian-era symbolism of flowers and their secret meanings, and Victoria embraces it as a way to express difficult emotions to the adults in her life. She describes the situations that led her to become an often abrasive young adult, the self-sabotage that left her homeless in a San Francisco park, and the twists of fate that lead to her work with a high-end city florist and her guarded relationship with a Napa Valley farmer who understands her secret language like no one else.
From the smell of warm summer fruit to the sounds of a busy farmer’s market on a Saturday morning, every scene in the novel feels authentic and immediate. (Red Wagon Productions has optioned the book for a film adaptation.)
Diffenbaugh says the truth about foster care lies somewhere between the frequent demonization of foster children in the media and the rosy picture of fostering a child portrayed in the film The Blind Side.
“We’re all human and we’re all struggling. I didn’t want to end the story tied up with a ribbon, but it’s possible for people to change, it’s possible for people to overcome, it’s possible for people to reconnect even when they’ve been so hurt,” she says. “I wanted to show the whole picture.”
While she’s already working on her next book, Diffenbaugh is also launching a new organization, The Camellia Network, to help build support for young adults leaving foster care. “I think it’s one of the most pressing and most disastrous issues facing foster care right now,” she says.
“In the language of flowers, camellia means ‘my destiny is in your hands,’ and the idea is that we’re all interconnected. The destiny of our country lies in the hands of the youngest citizens.”
Copyright 2011 BookPage Reviews.
A collection of interconnected narratives, Julie Otsuka’s richly imagined novel, The Buddha in the Attic, focuses on a group of Japanese women who come to California after World War I as “picture brides” to marry men they’ve never met. Otsuka employs a first-person plural voice to tell their story, a device that emphasizes the characters’ shared fate. Facing up to the difficulties of being wives and the confusion of unfamiliar customs (wearing shoes while indoors, for example), they discover that their new lives contain unexpected challenges. But when World War II hits, unleashing widespread suspicion of Japanese Americans, Otsuka’s heroines find themselves in the midst of a nightmare. A finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, this remarkable novel is a skillful portrayal of the immigrant experience that reinforces Otsuka’s reputation as a writer to watch.
LEGACIES OF 9/11
The Submission, Amy Waldman’s accomplished debut, examines the ways in which America was changed by the tragedy of 9/11. The novel’s polarizing event is an anonymous design contest for a memorial at Ground Zero. When the competition is won by Muslim architect Mohammad Khan, the controversial choice causes an uproar. Waldman, a former New Delhi bureau chief for The New York Times, creates a fascinating cast of players to tell an unforgettable story. Rich widow Claire Burwell, a judge in the contest, initially backs Khan but later has misgivings. Hot-tempered Sean Gallagher, who lost a brother on 9/11, is against the memorial, while contest chairman Paul Rubin is worried about the political side of the crisis. Waldman’s depictions are convincing, and she writes with emotion and heart—but without lapsing into sentimentality. This is a shrewd and timely novel that’s sure to hit home with readers.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s touching debut tells the story of 18-year-old Victoria Jones, an orphan living on the streets of San Francisco. Brought up in foster care, Victoria finds it hard to trust people and shies away from relationships. She finds solace in an unexpected source: flowers. Diffenbaugh deftly weaves in scenes of Victoria’s childhood, when she lived with a woman named Elizabeth who taught her all about plants. That knowledge proves invaluable when Victoria lands a job at a florist, where she demonstrates a gift for creating bouquets. Her arrangements seem to have special properties, triggering change for the better in the lives of those who receive them. When change affects her own life—in the form of a kind young man from her past—Victoria finds herself re-evaluating her solitary existence. Diffenbaugh’s sensitively written tale shows what life is like for the lonely while affirming that connection and growth are always possible.
Cleverly combining tender and tough, Diffenbaugh's highly anticipated debut creates a place in the world for a social misfit with floral insight.
After more than 32 homes, 18-year-old Victoria Jones, abandoned as a baby, has given up on the idea of love or family. Scarred, suspicious and defiant, she has nothing: no friends, no money, just an attitude, an instinct for flowers and an education in their meaning from Elizabeth, the one kind foster parent who persevered with her. Now graduating out of state care, Victoria must make her own way and starts out by sleeping rough in a local San Francisco park. But a florist gives her casual work and then, at a flower market, she meets Grant, Elizabeth's nephew, another awkward soul who speaks the language of flowers. Diffenbaugh narrates Victoria and Grant's present-day involvement, over which the cloud of the past hangs heavy, in parallel with the history of Elizabeth's foster care, which we know ended badly. After a strong, self-destructive start, Victoria's long road to redemption takes some dips including an unconvincing, drawn-out subplot involving Elizabeth's sister, arson and postnatal depression. While true to the logic of its perverse psychology, the story can be exasperating before finally swerving toward the light.
An unusual, overextended romance, fairy tale in parts but with a sprinkling of grit.Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Diffenbaugh's debut novel opens on Victoria Jones's 18th birthday, which coincides with her emancipation from California's foster care system. Abandoned at birth, Victoria has grown up in a string of bad foster homes, except for the one year she spent with Elizabeth, a vineyard owner who taught her the meaning of flowers. Alternating between Victoria's brief time with Elizabeth and her unsteady attempt to face life as an adult with little education and less experience, Diffenbaugh weaves together the two narratives using the Victorian language of flowers that ultimately helps shape Victoria's future as she grapples with a painful decision from her past. VERDICT Victoria might be her own worst enemy, but her defensiveness and self-doubt as a foster child and her desire to live beyond what she was thought capable of will sway readers toward her favor. Fans of Janet Fitch's White Oleander will enjoy this solid and well-written debut, which is also certain to be a hit with book clubs. [National marketing campaign reflects strong in-house buzz; rights sold in 22 countries; Diffenbaugh will be a featured speaker at the May 24 BEA Random House/LJ Book and Author Breakfast, bit.ly/gOEPwy.--Ed.]--Mara Dabrishus, Ursuline Coll., Pepper Pike, OH[Page 90]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Diffenbaugh's affecting debut chronicles the first harrowing steps into adulthood taken by a deeply wounded soul who finds her only solace in an all-but-forgotten language. On her 18th birthday, Victoria Jones ages out of the foster care system, a random series of living arrangements around the San Francisco Bay Area the only home she's ever known. Unable to express herself with words, she relies on the Victorian language of flowers to communicate: dahlias for "dignity"; rhododendron for "beware." Released from care with almost nothing, Victoria becomes homeless, stealing food and sleeping in McKinley Square, in San Francisco, where she maintains a small garden. Her secret knowledge soon lands her a job selling flowers, where she meets Grant, a mystery man who not only speaks her language, but also holds a crucial key to her past. Though Victoria is wary of almost everyone, she opens to Grant, and he reconnects her with the only person who has ever mattered in her life. Diffenbaugh's narrator is a hardened survivor and wears her damage on her sleeve. Struggling against all and ultimately reborn, Victoria Jones is hard to love, but very easy to root for. (Sept.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC