In an author interview at the end of The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh says of her inspiration for the novel, “I’d been a foster parent for many years, and I felt it was an experience that had not been described well or often…. With Victoria, I wanted to create a character that people could connect with on an emotional level—at her best and at her worst—which I hoped would give readers a deeper understanding of the challenges of growing up in foster care.” As someone who worked for seven years with kids in foster care, some of whom aged out like Victoria, and as someone who was briefly a foster parent, I think Diffenbaugh does a terrific job.
We meet Victoria on her way to her “last chance” placement with Elizabeth. “I pressed my forehead against the window and watched the dusty summer hills roll past. Meredith’s car smelled like cigarette smoke, and there was mold on the strap of the seat belt from something some other child had been allowed to eat. I was nine years old. I sat in the backseat of the car in my nightgown, my cropped hair a tangled mess. It was not the way Meredith had wanted it. She’d purchased a dress for the occasion, a flowing, pale blue shift with embroidery and lace. But I had refused to wear it.”
Diffenbaugh’s language as she tells Victoria’s story is full of this kind of rich sensory detail that puts the reader in the backseat with Victoria when she shows us the mold on the strap of the seat belt. And that one tiny, dirty, carefully observed detail suggests larger truths about the foster care system. For that trip to her “last chance” Victoria is still in her nightgown. Because we all feel vulnerable in our nightgowns, we take Victoria’s vulnerability into our own sensibilities.
Victoria is a very specific girl; she’s not a type, and that’s where the charm and intelligence of the story lies. She is memorable. She speaks the language of flowers. She burns down the vineyard and lies to the judge. Against all odds, she becomes a successful business person with her language of flowers. She lives in weird places. The scene where she wraps her baby in moss to give to Grant is such a wonderful, fresh, memorable scene. As is her almost Homeric battle with Hazel to get nursing routine under control. I will never forget Victoria, just as will never forget Dellarobbia in Flight Behavior.
Yet Diffenbaugh also achieves her goals of giving readers an understanding, generally, of the hardship of growing up in foster care. Victoria’s anger (which is really a mask for terror), her ravenous hunger (a sign of her emotional emptiness), her inability to learn in a normal school setting are normal behaviors of foster kids. The kids are usually terrified, emotionally drained, and unable to concentrate. Victoria makes these generalities specific in the most compelling way.
We say goodbye to Victoria when she’s a mother and a small business owner and on the cusp of beginning a new and hopeful life with Grant, Hazel, and Elizabeth. And the journey from hello to goodbye is steered by the language of flowers. Victoria finds that language clear and unambiguous—Hazel means reconciliation; moss means maternal love; purple hyacinth means please forgive me. And where there is ambiguity, Victoria sorts it out, nails it down, and records it on two cards. One for her; one for Grant. The language of flowers, which Elizabeth introduces her to, connects Victoria to Elizabeth, Grant, Hazel, and her customers. And that’s where her hope lies at the end of the story. —Sharelle Moranville