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Language of Flowers (Diffenbaugh)

The Language of Flowers
Vanessa Diffenbaugh, 2011
Random House
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345525550


Summary
A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—January 20, 1978
Raised—Chico, California, USA
Education—Stanford University
Currently—lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Vanessa Diffenbaugh was born in San Francisco and raised in Chico, California. After studying creative writing and education at Stanford, she went on to teach art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband, PK, have three children: Tre’von, eighteen; Chela, four; and Miles, three. Tre’von, a former foster child, is attending New York University on a Gates Millennium Scholarship. Diffenbaugh and her family currently live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her husband is studying urban school reform at Harvard.  (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews
In this original and brilliant first novel, Diffenbaugh has united her fascination with the language of flowers—a long-forgotten and mysterious way of communication—with her firsthand knowledge of the travails of the foster-care system…This novel is both enchanting and cruel, full of beauty and anger. Diffenbaugh is a talented writer and a mesmerizing storyteller.
Brigitte Weeks - Washington Post


An unexpectedly beautiful book about an ugly subject: children who grow up without families, and what becomes of them in the absence of unconditional love...Jane Eyre for 2011.
San Francisco Chronicle


In a world where talk is cheap, debut author Vanessa Diffenbaugh has written a captivating novel in which a single sprig of rosemary speaks louder than words. …The Language of Flowers deftly weaves the sweetness of newfound love with the heartache of past mistakes in a novel that will certainly change how you choose your next bouquet.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune


Instantly enchanting.... [Diffenbaugh] is the best new writer of the yea
Elle


A fascinating debut…. Diffenbaugh clearly knows both the human heart and her plants, and she keeps us rooting for the damaged Victoria.
O Magazine


Diffenbaugh's affecting debut chronicles the first harrowing steps into adulthood taken by a deeply wounded soul who finds her only solace in an all-but-forgotten language. On her 18th birthday, Victoria Jones ages out of the foster care system, a random series of living arrangements around the San Francisco Bay Area the only home she's ever known. Unable to express herself with words, she relies on the Victorian language of flowers to communicate: dahlias for "dignity"; rhododendron for "beware." Released from care with almost nothing, Victoria becomes homeless, stealing food and sleeping in McKinley Square, in San Francisco, where she maintains a small garden. Her secret knowledge soon lands her a job selling flowers, where she meets Grant, a mystery man who not only speaks her language, but also holds a crucial key to her past. Though Victoria is wary of almost everyone, she opens to Grant, and he reconnects her with the only person who has ever mattered in her life. Diffenbaugh's narrator is a hardened survivor and wears her damage on her sleeve. Struggling against all and ultimately reborn, Victoria Jones is hard to love, but very easy to root for.
Publishers Weekly


Diffenbaugh's debut novel opens on Victoria Jones's 18th birthday, which coincides with her emancipation from California's foster care system. Abandoned at birth, Victoria has grown up in a string of bad foster homes, except for the one year she spent with Elizabeth, a vineyard owner who taught her the meaning of flowers. Alternating between Victoria's brief time with Elizabeth and her unsteady attempt to face life as an adult with little education and less experience, Diffenbaugh weaves together the two narratives using the Victorian language of flowers that ultimately helps shape Victoria's future as she grapples with a painful decision from her past. Verdict: Victoria might be her own worst enemy, but her defensiveness and self-doubt as a foster child and her desire to live beyond what she was thought capable of will sway readers toward her favor. Fans of Janet Fitch's White Oleander will enjoy this solid and well-written debut, which is also certain to be a hit with book clubs. —Mara Dabrishus, Ursuline Coll., Pepper Pike, OH
Library Journal



Discussion Questions
1. What potential do Elizabeth, Renata, and Grant see in Victoria that she has a hard time seeing in herself?

2. While Victoria has been hungry and malnourished often in her life, food ends up meaning more than just nourishment to her.  Why?

3. Victoria and Elizabeth both struggle with the idea of being part of a family.  What does it mean to you to be part of a family?  What defines family?

4. Why do you think Elizabeth waits so long before trying to patch things up with her long-lost sister Catherine?  What is the impetus for her to do so?

5. The first week after her daughter’s birth goes surprisingly well for Victoria.  What is it that makes Victoria feel unable to care for her child after the week ends?  And what is it that allows her to ultimately rejoin her family?

6. One of the major themes in The Language of Flowers is forgiveness and second chances – do you think Victoria deserves one after the things she did (both as a child and as an adult)?  What about Catherine?  And Elizabeth?

7. What did you think of the structure of the book – the alternating chapters of past and present?  In what ways did the two storylines parallel each other, and how did they diverge?

8. The novel touches on many different themes (love, family, forgiveness, second chances). Which do you think is the most important?  And what did you think was ultimately the lesson?

9. At the end of the novel, Victoria learns that moss grows without roots.  What does this mean, and why is it such a revelation for her?

10. Based on your reading of the novel, what are your impressions of the foster care system in America?  What could be improved?

11. Knowing what you now know about the language of the flowers, to whom would you send a bouquet and what would you want it to say?
(Questions issued by publisher. See The Language of Flowers website for interesting extras.)

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