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 Carolina and Indian 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.
It was my eighteenth birthday. (pg. 3)
Victoria is eighteen years old and, as an orphan in the foster system, she is about to be thrust out into the world. Her social worker is coming to her group home to take her a transition home where she will have a few months to gain her feet. The other members of the home are giving her a little going away present giving the reader a hint to Victoria’s difficult temperament as well as the harsh reality of her living environment. This is the start of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel The Language of Flowers which alternates chapters between Victoria’s time when she left the group home and when she was ten years old living with Elizabeth. Victoria had been in many foster situations which had not worked out and was on her last change with Elizabeth, a grape grower and the woman who taught her the language of flowers, each flower having a different meaning or symbolizing a specific emotion or trait..
This novel was on my to be read list as soon as I found out the premise. Victoria has been taught the language of flowers and this, along with an uncanny ability with plants, is the only real knowledge she has. She is somewhat obsessed with growing things even to the point of planting a small, out of the way bit underbrush on a San Francisco street corner. One of my favorite passages of Jo’s Boys (Louisa May Alcott’s sequel to Little Men) is when one of the characters uses flowers to ask a young woman about her feelings for him. It is such a romantic passage and I always wanted to more about this language and how people can use flowers to convey a certain message. Fortunately, Diffenbaugh includes a dictionary of flowers in the back of the book.
The novel follows Victoria from homelessness, to a job working for a florist, to a relationship with a flower grower, and beyond. We also learn how Victoria gained her affinity for flowers and learned their language which derives from Victorian England. The switches back and forth led to my biggest issue with the book. The voice of the ten year old child sounds far more mature than is possible. While I understand that a child abandoned at birth and raised in the system may have a certain level of maturity due to her circumstances but the voice came across to me as an adult. So I was confused if these chapters were supposed to be reminiscences by a grown-up Victoria or if they were suppose to come across in real time.
Victoria is difficult to like – she is rebellious, prickly, and very slow to accept help. It was pretty obvious to me that she suffered from attachment disorder so that knowledge helps me to place her behavior in that light and gave me some understanding. I did have to keep remembering that the novel does not take place in the immediate present – My impression was the late 1970′s. I recently went back and tried to find some marker that would give a definite date and was unable to do so. It was a different time and what we know now about attachment disorder is far more than we knew then. That would perhaps explain the lack of counseling, the underground economy, even the way Victoria runs her business. It doesn’t help the reader that the author doesn’t mention the disorder in the novel at all (it is mentioned in the acknowledgements in the back of the book).
Another issue of the book is how the pathway out of attachment disorder is simplified in the novel. The author does show Victoria’s search for the ability to make and maintain an intense emotional connection is not an easy one but the process seemed almost glossed over, something to be inferred rather than told. Attachment disorder is very complex and to get to the other side is an often long and winding path with much back and forth. I really wish I had been able to attend my book group’s discussion of the novel. One of the members has a lot of experience with these issues and I would like to know her opinion of the book. I do think it is a good book to discuss in a group.
Aside from taking a look at what happens to children after they leave foster care (a cause the author is very involved in), it is also about motherhood. Are we mothers because of birth or because of love or even a combination? What does motherhood mean to a child that has been abandoned? Is connection possible when you have never had one, when the first and most basic connection a human being has is severed? This is what the novel does well, from the epigraph, “Moss is selected to be the emblem of motherhood, because like that love, it glads the heart when the winter of adversity overtakes us, and when summer friends have deserted us. (Henrietta Dumont, The Floral Offering)”, to the relationships between other people that Victoria encounters in the novel. How deep to roots need to be for there to be a bond between two people?
However, this will not be one of my favorite books of this year. It rubbed me the wrong way while I was reading it. I didn’t have difficulty with Victoria’s behavior, rather my difficulties are with the author’s writing. I had a difficult time getting beyond the voice issues and the simplification of complex issues. It is a quick read and if you are interested in reading about motherhood or what happens to foster children when they are emancipated, the book may be worth your time. If you are interested in the Language of flowers you will learn a lot in this book. And because a number of other readers liked more than I did, here are two reviews with a different opinion from mine: