A few months ago, I noticed a peculiar flower growing next to my house: It's purple and grows in bunches on tall stalks; it looks a lot like fireworks. A gardener friend identified it for me as Agapanthus, and ever since I've noticed it everywhere — in private gardens, public parks, medians, and vacant lots — usually purple, occasionally white. The ubiquity of the flower got to me, as did its weird beauty, and I've wondered all summer what it meant.
Enter The Language of Flowers, the debut novel by Vanessa Diffenbaugh — a rich, substantial tearjerker as well as a reminder that society can write people off as easily as it forgot the Victorian language of flowers, which, once upon a time, gave lovers a way to communicate without saying a word.
"Flowers and gardens were an incredibly all-encompassing cultural phenomenon in the Victorian era," said Diffenbaugh. "Queen Victoria died in 1901; and soon after the world was at war. The Victorians were known for their 'sentiment' — allowing emotions to influence decisions — which became referred to with distaste as 'sentimentality.' The era of the logical, scientific mind was ushered in, eclipsing the Victorian era and sensibilities."
In Diffenbaugh's book, misanthropic, lonely Victoria Jones spends her childhood in the foster care system, with the exception of one successful placement wherein she learns about flowers and viticulture, and which she ultimately sabotages, sending her back into the system. Aged out at eighteen, Victoria becomes homeless in San Francisco. Eventually, her ability to communicate through flowers — though hardly any other way — leads her on a tenuous path to a job, a lover, a support system, and some kind of redemption. If this all sounds a bit too Hollywood to you, well, Hollywood has noticed, too: The rights were acquired by Fox earlier this month.
But The Language of Flowers has a real, urban heart. Victoria's way of doing business — in a near-empty storefront, arranging flowers by their meanings and refusing clients at will — changes the Bay Area flower industry. "Some reviewers have cited this as an example of magical realism," said Diffenbaugh, "which is not how I meant it at all. I meant it as a subtle seismic shift that spread immediately, and seemingly without effort, the way many interesting ideas are spread by passionate people.
"The language of flowers fell out of fashion, but the flowers themselves never lost their significance," continued Diffenbaugh, who reads on Friday, September 23, at noon at Rakestraw Books (522 Hartz Ave., Danville; 925-837-7337 or RakestrawBooks.com) and then at 7 p.m. at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland; 510-339-8210 or GreatGoodPlace.indiebound.com); both events are free. "In the same way, young people in foster care, though lacking the support or attention of society, never stop being important. When they don't receive the support or resources to achieve their goals, the impact on the broader society is catastrophic. Every year, over 20,000 young people 'age out' of the foster care system. Twenty-five percent become homeless in two years. This is an outcome that can't be ignored, both for the sake of the young people and also for the sake of society." The author, a foster mother herself, has launched Camellia Network, a nonprofit helping foster kids gain independence upon emancipation. Camellias mean, in the Victorian language of flowers, "My destiny is in your hands."
And Agapanthus? "Love letter."