Each year, nearly 20,000 young people “age out” of America’s foster care system, and many of them have nowhere to go. Writer Vanessa Diffenbaugh has transformed this sad statistic into an extraordinary debut novel.

The focus of a fierce bidding war among publishers, The Language of Flowers tells the visceral and deeply touching story of Victoria, a teen who has been discharged from foster care, leaving her alone and emotionally barricaded. It’s also a compelling story about spiritual hunger and the power of nature—and human connection—to help heal hearts.

“My book is helping to tell a story that needs to be told.”

“It came pouring out of me,” Diffenbaugh says of the six-month process of writing the book. “It was about a year and a half from the time I started it to the time I sold it. Pretty quick for a first-time novel and a bunch of kids in the house,” Diffenbaugh laughs, as she juggles a bit of background chaos, plus kids and a babysitter’s schedule, at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Set in San Francisco and Napa Valley, The Language of Flowers draws heavily on Diffenbaugh’s upbringing in Northern California, with its fertile farms and vineyards, as well as her experience as a foster parent. Born in San Francisco, she studied creative writing at Stanford and taught art and writing to young people in low-income communities before becoming a full-time parent. She and her husband, PK Diffenbaugh, have two biological children, and have fostered children throughout their marriage. They recently moved from California to Cambridge, first dropping their foster son Tre’von, 18, at New York University, which he is attending on a Gates Millennium Scholarship.

In the novel, Diffenbaugh takes two strands—nature and created family—and spins them into an absorbing story that is as complicated and exhilarating as any human relationship. But instead of reading like a polemic disguised as fiction, The Language of Flowers is full of startling and masterful dialogue, intense, emotional scenes that crackle and come alive as they unspool, and flawed yet sympathetic characters.

“As you can tell, I’m passionate about two things: writing and helping kids in foster care,” Diffenbaugh says. “I could recite statistics that would blow your mind about what is happening to these kids, especially as they emancipate from the system—25 percent become homeless within two years—but you’re not going to . . . feel empowered to do something about it if you haven’t had some kind of connection with a story that helps you feel on an emotional level. My book is helping to tell a story that needs to be told.”

Narrated by Victoria in flashbacks, the novel follows her life as she bounces from one foster situation to the next until she’s emancipated from foster care at 18. Her most significant relationship is with Elizabeth, a gardener who grew up on a Northern California vineyard and is now estranged from her family. Elizabeth introduces her to the Victorian-era symbolism of flowers and their secret meanings, and Victoria embraces it as a way to express difficult emotions to the adults in her life. She describes the situations that led her to become an often abrasive young adult, the self-sabotage that left her homeless in a San Francisco park, and the twists of fate that lead to her work with a high-end city florist and her guarded relationship with a Napa Valley farmer who understands her secret language like no one else. 

From the smell of warm summer fruit to the sounds of a busy farmer’s market on a Saturday morning, every scene in the novel feels authentic and immediate. (Red Wagon Productions has optioned the book for a film adaptation.)

Diffenbaugh says the truth about foster care lies somewhere between the frequent demonization of foster children in the media and the rosy picture of fostering a child portrayed in the film The Blind Side

“We’re all human and we’re all struggling. I didn’t want to end the story tied up with a ribbon, but it’s possible for people to change, it’s possible for people to overcome, it’s possible for people to reconnect even when they’ve been so hurt,” she says. “I wanted to show the whole picture.” 

While she’s already working on her next book, Diffenbaugh is also launching a new organization, The Camellia Network, to help build support for young adults leaving foster care. “I think it’s one of the most pressing and most disastrous issues facing foster care right now,” she says.

“In the language of flowers, camellia means ‘my destiny is in your hands,’ and the idea is that we’re all interconnected. The destiny of our country lies in the hands of the youngest citizens.”

 

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