Author Vanessa Diffenbaugh comes home, much lauded debut novel in hand
Chico Women’s Club592 E. Third St.
Chico, CA 95928
When Vanessa Diffenbaugh was a student at Chico High School—she was Vanessa Fleming then—she often went across The Esplanade at lunchtime to sit on the steps of the Veterans Memorial Hall and write. “I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” she said during a recent phone interview. “I spent so many of my lunch periods sitting there writing.”
Dreams do come true. Diffenbaugh’s debut novel, The Language of Flowers, is so good it incited a bidding war when it went to auction. She’s been interviewed on NPR, and the novel has occasioned write-ups in major newspapers and magazines across the country and in Europe. Its publisher, Ballantine, a division of Random House, has sold the rights in 31 countries.
“It’s now No. 2 on the Italian best-seller list!” she said excitedly. (The book was released in the United States just last week.)
Diffenbaugh’s life has been a whirl of late—book tours through Europe, endless interviews and photo shoots, and now a five-week tour of the United States that began Monday (Aug. 29) in Denver and includes stops in just about every major city in the country—plus Chico, which she is visiting today (Thursday, Sept. 1, at Chico Women’s Club).
This success is all the more remarkable because the novel’s narrator and central character, Victoria Jones, is a deeply troubled young woman who is difficult to like. She’s spent her entire life in the foster-care system and has suffered so deeply from a lack of love that she trusts nobody and is terribly destructive, to herself and others. Diffenbaugh skillfully reveals her to us, and we come to understand and care for her despite her flaws.
Set in the San Francisco Bay Area in the recent past, the book opens as Victoria is turning 18 and, as the law demands, being emancipated from foster care. She has no resources, no friends, no family and nowhere to go, so she ends up sleeping in a park.
She does have a skill, though, one she learned from the only foster mother who treated her with loving kindness, a woman named Elizabeth who, for a year starting when Victoria was 9, struggled to break through the child’s defenses. Elizabeth is an expert in the Victorian tradition of assigning symbolic meaning to different flowers and then using them to send secret messages that the receiver has to decode to understand.
For Victoria, this “language of flowers” is a godsend, for it enables her to communicate her feelings in a way that transcends her pain and fear. Because of her skill at arranging flowers, she finds work at a florist, and soon becomes a local legend for her ability to create floral arrangements that speak to customers’ deepest needs and even—a touch of magical realism here—cures what ails them.
The novel alternates chapters between flashback scenes from Victoria’s brief but crucial time with Elizabeth and her current effort to get her life on track following her emancipation. It’s apparent early on that something terrible happened between Victoria and Elizabeth, and much of the story’s tension comes from the air of mystery surrounding this rupture.
Another character who figures prominently in the novel is Grant, an enigmatic young man at the wholesale flower market whose interest in her unsettles Victoria. She gives him a rhododendron flower, which means “Beware.” The next morning he responds, giving her mistletoe: “I surmount all obstacles.” Thus begins one of the more unusual romances in modern fiction.
Diffenbaugh, 33, and her husband, PK, who live in Cambridge, Mass., have been foster parents (they also have two young biological children), so they understand how the system works. They know that many of the 20,000 18-year-olds who are emancipated each year end up homeless. To combat this, they have founded the Camellia Network (camellia means “My destiny is in your hands”), an online service (camellianetwork.org) that allows donors to support youth in their transition from care to independence.
Locally, many people are excited about Diffenbaugh’s visit, none more so than her proud parents, father Ken Fleming and stepmother Melinda Vasquez, mother Liz George and stepfather Jim Botill. For her part Diffenbaugh, who once worked at Bird in Hand selling “Chico is My Hometown” bumper stickers, is eager to see former teachers and friends. “I’m really, really happy that I’m coming home,” she said.