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January/February Pick 2012

The Language of Flowers

In Person! The Language of Flowers - An Evening with Vanessa Diffenbaugh and Camellia Network
Tuesday, January 24 - 6pm
Main Library-Koret Auditorium - 100 Larkin St., SF

model home book cover
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

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 Bay Area 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 San Francisco 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.

About The Author

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.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh is also the founder of the Camellia Network. The mission of the Camellia Network is to create a nationwide movement to support youth transitioning from foster care. In The Language of Flowers, Camellia means "My Destiny is in Your Hands." The network’s name emphasizes the belief in the interconnectedness of humanity: each gift a young person receives will be accompanied by a camellia, a reminder that the destiny of our nation lies in the hands of our youngest citizens.

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?

Reviews

"Enchanting, ennobling, and powerfully engaging, Diffenbaugh's artfully accomplished debut novel lends poignant testimony to the multitude of mysteries held in the human heart." -Booklist (starred review)
"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…Struggling against all and ultimately reborn, Victoria Jones is hard to love, but very easy to root for." -Publishers Weekly
"Diffenbaugh effortlessly spins this enchanting tale, making even her prickly protagonist impossible not to love." -Entertainment Weekly
"Fascinating … Diffenbaugh, herself a foster mother, clearly knows both the human heart and her plants, and she keeps us rooting for the damaged Victoria, who comes, finally, to understand that 'the unattached, the unwanted, the unloved [can] grow to give love as lushly as anyone else.'" -O, The Oprah Magazine
"This is the story of an orphan rising above her circumstances- Jane Eyre for 2011." -San Francisco Chronicle
"Lucid and lovely … Diffenbaugh has found a vibrant way to tell a familiar story of rift (Carolina jasmine) and reconciliation (hazel)." -Wall Street Journal
Catnip for book clubs … The language of flowers, as illuminated through Victoria's words and a special appendix, turns out to be an addictive preoccupation: once you know that peonies represent anger; basil, hate; and red carnations, heartbreak; every bouquet takes on a new significance. -NPR
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