The most hyped novel of the year ‘The Language of Flowers’, a debut for a young American writer, has been published in Britain. Damaged and alone, Victoria, 18, can only connect with people using the Victorian language of flowers. Here author Vanessa Diffenbaugh speaks to EWN’s Alfredo Bloy.
VANESSA DIFFENBAUGH, 33, reportedly received a $1 million advance in the US for The Language of Flowers, her first novel. She speaks Spanish, with a Mexican accent, and is planning to visit Spain next spring, when the novel is published here. Her UK editor said she’s never before received a manuscript as close to the perfect novel as this one.
Vanessa admits she was ‘shocked’ by the amount of excitement surrounding the launch of The Language of Flowers. “It’s exciting. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said. The Language of Flowers is about a young woman named Victoria who has grown up in the foster-care system.
It starts on her 18th birthday when she comes of age and sets out on her own. She ends up homeless because she doesn’t have any family or extra support. The only way that she has ever learnt to connect or communicate with the world is through flowers and their meaning, so she learns the Victorian language of flowers with the help of a woman, Elizabeth, who tried to adopt her when she was 10 years old.
She spends a lifetime leaving messages for people but they don’t know what she is saying. “Then, one day, someone in a flower market responds with flowers and it is a young man who also knows the language of flowers,” Vanessa revealed. The book is about their relationship and her trying to learn how to love and trust and have a family.
“I’ve always loved the language of flowers. I discovered it when I was 16 years old. I was completely fascinated by the fact that something that once was so common and so well known in Europe and throughout the United States is now almost completely forgotten,” Vanessa explained.
“I thought as my character had been so traumatized and so hurt, she needed some way to connect and communicate. “When I got down to writing the book, the language of flowers just came to me and seemed like the perfect communication method for her.” Although the novel is fiction, she drew from her experience as a foster mother for the past five years.
“I have worked with a lot of kids like Victoria, who really inspired me to write this book.” There is one young woman who inspired the character more than anyone else. “She had been born into the foster-care system, just like Victoria. She didn’t know who her parents were; she didn’t even have a name on her birth certificate, just a number,” Victoria recalled.
“She is a young woman that we really wanted to adopt and we tried really hard to have her be part of our family but we found we just couldn’t reach her. It was a really hard experience for us. So it did inspire this book.”
In the language of flowers, moss means ‘maternal love’. “The very end of the book is very much focused on this idea that moss is the only plant that grows without roots, and Victoria who doesn’t have any roots has always considered herself unable to love or to attach,” she said.
In the novel, all the characters are flawed, something Vanessa said was a conscious decision.
“In the first draft of the book, Elizabeth was perfect and she is a foster mother. I realised when I finished writing it ‘she is the foster mother I wish I could be’ and I can’t.
“It’s really much more honest to tell a story about people who aren’t that perfect.”
Good looking, intelligent, successful; how can the author present so many flawed characters when she seems almost perfect herself? “I’m not perfect,” she replied. “We only have two foster kids that are part of our family, but we have had a lot who we wish still were.
“There are many Hollywood movies which show the adoptive mother that sweeps in and is perfect, and they live happily ever after. “Perhaps that’s been true for us with some of our kids but with others it hasn’t been. “I think it is important to tell those stories as well because I think the only thing that sets my husband and I apart is that we just haven’t given up.
“Even though we have failed, we just keep trying,” said Vanessa.
My destiny is in your hands
Vanessa Diffenbaugh has created a movement across the US to support youth making the transition from foster care, called the Camellia Network (camellianetwork.org). In the language of flowers, Camellia means ‘my destiny is in your hands’. Vanessa is hoping to use the hype surrounding the release of The Language of Flowers to draw attention to and promote Camellia.
“I have two passions in life; one is writing, and one is foster care and the fact that I get to shine attention on one by using the other has been a dream come true for me. We have about 25 kids on our site right now but we’re adding more every day.”