The quaint Victorian preoccupation of sending messages through the choice of flowers is resurrected in The Language of Flowers, and practised by the most unlikely candidate. It’s not a white-haired spinster with a regal bun atop her head. Neither is it a middle-aged, lonely-hearts woman sublimating her perennially unfulfilled romantic desires. Instead, it’s an angry 18-year-old ward of the state, just released from the foster-care system.
The aptly named Victoria was given up anonymously for adoption as an infant. During her years inside the foster-care system, she was “returned to sender” from dozens of foster families, until at the age of 9 she seemed to have found a foster mother, vineyard-owner Elizabeth, willing to put up with her violent and negative behaviour.
In this novel, Diffenbaugh explores the prickly terrain of abandonment and the soft-as-moss ideal of maternal love, two contradictory concepts that fit perfectly into the extended conceit of plants and their messages.
On Victoria’s first day with her, Elizabeth puts a small bouquet of stalwart, a flower whose message is “welcome,” on top of the little girl’s bowl of pasta. So begins Victoria’s education in the language of flowers.
After dinner, Victoria trails behind Elizabeth, only half-listening to the explanations about the different plants because she is focused on eating peanut butter from a spoon, a rare indulgence. Once done, she tosses the silver spoon into the bushes. When they return to the house, Elizabeth announces that Victoria cannot come back in until she retrieves the utensil. The foster mother then locks Victoria outside. It’s a surprising act of tough love that has mixed results.
As darkness descends, Victoria frantically searches for the spoon, badly cutting her hands with thorns before finally meeting with success. “Wiping my bloody hands on my pants, I grabbed the spoon and ran toward the house, tripping and falling and picking myself up without ever letting go of my prize. I bounded up the steps, pounding the heavy metal spoon against the wooden door relentlessly. The lock turned, and Elizabeth stood before me.”
Though Elizabeth was true to her word, unlike so many of her other caregivers, Victoria was not about to let her get away with her discipline. And so starts a year-long rocky relationship between foster mother and foster daughter that puts to the test every ounce of maternal patience and trust each has.
When the story starts, Victoria is 18 and living in a park, cultivating flowers that comfort and shield her from the dangers of the world. Realizing that she can’t do that forever, she manages to finagle herself a job in a flower shop. She soon touches the lives of many people through her personalized bouquets. For the husband who misses the woman his wife used to be before old age changed her, mums and periwinkle, which stand for truth and tender recollections. For a surly 16-year-old granddaughter, white roses and lily of the valley, return to happiness for a heart unacquainted with love. A single woman who wants to find a husband: red roses and lilac, love and, for good measure, the first emotions of love. As Victoria grows into the job, her perceptions of life, love and family mature.
In this absorbing and delicately wrought debut novel, Diffenbaugh heeds the creative-writing maxim: Write what you know. She has been a foster mother and has taught art and writing in low-income communities. This experience is discernible in The Language of Flowers. The idea that an angry young girl such as Victoria would actually be interested in flowers and their meanings seems implausible on one level, and yet Diffenbaugh uses to good effect the belief that evergreen hope lies nascent within most damaged kids. It’s just a matter of finding what that trigger is; for Victoria, it was the seed that Elizabeth planted nine years before.
Ultimately, The Language of Flowers is a hopeful book tempered by reality. It leaves the reader with trilliums and saffron: modest beauty and a wariness of excess.
Elizabeth Johnston teaches creative writing at Concordia University.