Thursday, 23 February 2012

14. "The Language of Flowers" by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Page count: 400 pages
Date begun: February 10th, 2012
Date finished: February 10th, 2012

Victoria was abandoned by her mother and has been in foster care her entire life. With the exception of a period of a little over a year when she was 10, Victoria has lived with a series of horrible people and in group homes, leaving her unable to trust or emotionally connect anyone. When she is emancipated at 18, she starts out living in a park, until she finds employment with a kindly florist who recognises Victoria's genius with flowers, and slowly Victoria's life takes a turn for the better.

The book switches between Victoria's present, starting with her 18th birthday, and her past, looking back to the only time in her life when she was in a caring and stable home, with Elizabeth, the woman who taught her about the Victorian language of flowers, a language Victoria kept using to communicate her true emotions to those around her ever since, even though they rarely understood her expressions of distrust, grief and loneliness. Elizabeth genuinely loved Victoria and wanted to adopt her, until a tragic event meant Victoria was placed in a group home, once again a ward of the state.

The language of flowers, where each flower expresses a feeling or emotion, helps Victoria in her job as a florist, and she also runs into a young man with a link to her happier past at a local flower market. But even with a job, an understanding employer, a growing contact network and a sympathetic admirer, Victoria doesn't find it easy to learn to trust and form lasting relationships. Things went horribly wrong when she was 10, and she's convinced that it's only a matter of time before things fall apart again.

The Language of Flowers is Diffenbaugh's first novel, and it's an excellent debut. According to her website, she's been a foster parent for a number of children, and foster care is clearly a subject close to her heart. Nevertheless, this is not a preachy or self-righteous novel. Victoria is a wounded and distrustful young woman, who once had a chance at a stable and happy home, who blames herself for ruining her own chances, and has convinced herself that she doesn't deserve affection, and therefore can't give or receive it. This book is about the complexity of inter-personal relationships, not just between mothers and daughters (or sons), but also sisters, friends and extended family. Perceptive readers will have figured parts of the reason Victoria couldn't stay with Elizabeth before it is revealed, but the complete story was still a surprise to me, and while there are sad parts of the novel, the ending is all the sweeter and more hopeful because of it.

2 comments:

  1. I loved this book and really appreciated how the author didn't fictionalize the emotions and "realness" of being an orphan and adapting to the real world. Nice review!

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  2. Vanessa Diffenbaugh has written the book I always wanted to write. Throughout my career as a child welfare professional, I longed to write a book which would put into words the experiences, insights, and feelings I encountered every day. This is that kind of book. It perfectly captures the essence of the foster care experience and it's effects upon children, families, and society, and it speaks in a voice that anyone can hear. Most books on the subject either malign or idealize the system and the people involved, but these characters and situations rang true, with minimal exaggeration. Without jargon, defensiveness, or blame, this book "tells it like it is". And unlike those reviewers who argue about the appropriateness of the ending, I thank the author for the hopeful ending. There ARE those children who make their lives work; all are scarred, but some recover. Would it were all of them, but that won't happen until all of us, in and out of the system, recognize that what we are doing cannot possibly be our best. This should be required reading for policy makers, foster and adoptive parents, caseworkers, other professionals involved in the system, and anyone interested in the future of our children.

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