The Language of Flowers begins with the surreal image of one match lighting another, and then another. Victoria, on her 18th birthday, jumps out of bed to avoid being burned to death on this, her 18th birthday and emancipation from the California foster care system, of which she has been a ward since birth. The book follows her journey in the “after”–what happens to her when she, without family or friends, makes her way in the world. I haven’t read the novel on which the movie Precious was based, but the character is similar–someone with no one looking out for her, discovering that she has worth, gifts, and the ability to overcome the damage done to her by those who were supposed to care for her.
The silver thread tying together Victoria’s painful and hopeful experiences, past and present, is a love for the language of flowers and a gift for expressing herself botanically. The juxtaposition of her inability to relate and show love to others in a normal way and her uncanny ability to help others name their longings, desires and emotions through flowers makes this book artful and adds a layer of complexity to Victoria keeps the reader from sliding into pity or horror of her. We see her inner beauty, even while the threat of her destruction looms closer and closer.
The lexicon Victoria uses to communicate and connect is based around the notion from the Victorian era that flowers mean something. The only one that’s really survived to our century is that red rose = love. You’ll see why Victoria expresses disdain for both that flower and its simplistic meaning when you check out the floral dictionary in the back of the book. Why choose something so one-dimensional when there are so many other thoughts to express florally? Some examples (a few surprising): peony = anger (sorry June brides!), sunflower = false riches, peach blossom = I am your captive, dogwood = love undiminished by adversity.
No doubt the fate of this novel’s Victoria is more hopeful than many of her counterparts who have grown up in the foster care system. The hope is tempered by the reality, strongly expressed in the work, that someone like her has a long road to healing. The book’s author, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, has been a foster mother for years and has started an organization, The Camellia Network, to help kids who age out of foster care and are trying to make a life afterward. I first heard of this book though the blog Momastery, one of the best online communities I know of for regular people (especially women) who want to make a difference. After finishing this book, you will likely be moved to join them.