The title of Vanessa Diffenbauch's debut novel, The Language of Flowers, is deceiving. It promises something sweet and piquant like a Renaissance masquerade, but what it delivers is excruciatingly painful and lacking ambiguity: a judgment of the foster care system in the US. And the decision of the jury, us, the reader, is unequivocal: the system is monstrous; a devourer of souls.
At the start of the novel, the protagonist, Victoria Jones, turns eighteen. A ward of the state since birth, she is finally out of the system, emancipated. What does it mean? It means that she is thrown out into the world without money, without education or profession, and without anyone to love her. She is free of the system, physically, but the self-hatred, instilled in her by eighteen years of loveless childhood and adolescence, is too deep-rooted for real freedom. People reach out to her, but she shuns everyone, sometimes hurting others on purpose to keep them away. In her mind, she is undeserving. The only things that keep her human, that prevent her from turning into a complete monster, are flowers.
The language of flowers is the only language Victoria speaks without reservations or fear. She knows flowers and loves them. Flowers have never betrayed or abandoned her. They help her explore her humanity. Their fragile petals pave her path to the first, tentative emotional connections, out of the pit of self-loathing.
Set with the beautiful San Francisco as the background, the story flows seamlessly between Victoria now, at eighteen, and Victoria's recollections of her ten-year-old self. During that one year, she met Elizabeth, the only person who has ever loved her—and lost her again through jealousy and mistrust. Unable to forgive herself for the pain she caused Elizabeth, Victoria wouldn't allow herself to love or be loved again. A young flower farmer Grant loves her, but she runs away. She gives birth to their daughter and runs away again, sure she can't give the baby as much love as the child deserves.
When I read the book, I wanted to weep in frustration. I wanted to slap Victoria and scream at her: Don't you dare abandon your child! Be there! Make mistakes like the rest of us, lose your temper once in a while, it's allowable, we're only humans, but be there for her. I also wanted to curse at the injustices of Victoria's life, so full of anguish and so empty of affection.
In the end, Victoria starts a long climb out of her abyss of self-disgust. She doesn't like herself yet but she finally lets herself believe that she might be worthy. Somewhat.
This novel is as much an anatomy of self-hatred as it is a love story. Love conquers all in the book. Victoria gropes for a way out in the book. But the reality doesn't often resemble fiction. How many girls and boys who have come through the same meat-grinder of foster care do not find their way out? Maybe this book will stir our combined conscience at last and force us to take a hard look at ourselves.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh was born in San Francisco. After studying creative writing and education at Stanford, she went on to teach art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She 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. Visit her website.
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