The Language of Flowersby Vanessa Diffenbaugh on August 23, 2011 at 9:03 am
The funny thing about writing fiction is that everyone believes it’s true. After reading my novel The Language of Flowers, my husband held me tight in his arms.
“I’m sorry you felt so overwhelmed when our daughter was born,” he said, regret thick in his voice.
My own husband! The man who had been there every day—monitoring our baby and me with careful attention—thought I was as overwhelmed as the new mother in my book, Victoria.
“It’s fiction!” I told him, exasperated. “Don’t you know I made it all up?”
The trouble is—as much as I deny it—my character does, in specific instances, think and behave exactly like me. We share, for example, a passionate love for flowers and their meanings. Victoria leaves a single spring of rhododendron to say beware—I give wild bouquets of bellflower to express my gratitude. We both spend copious amounts of time buried in piles of language of flowers dictionaries from the 19th century, their spines crumbling and the gold lettering faded to dust; we both cringe as we walk past cellophane-wrapped mixed bouquets wilting in liquor store windows, their messages conflicting.
And we both love flower shops. Everything about them: the temperature, the smell (an edible, cantalope-y scent of ripe fruit, one that makes us both hungry), the forest-like rows of houseplants, the spider mums with their net caps; and most of all—the florists.
I once had a florist ask me the exact color of my armchair before arranging a bouquet (“if it were a color in a Crayola box, what would it be called?”) and another ask if I wanted a bouquet that would be received as a whisper or a declaration. What questions!
Florists are keepers of a body of information on the verge of extinction: they can tell you exactly how many minutes a hydrangea will hold its head up without water (10), how many months a potted calandiva will bloom (2) and which lily has the strongest scent (stargazers). They know the floral etiquette of traditional funeral bouquets; they know how to wrap an orchid to fit in a groom’s buttonhole.
I retain every word I gather from florists, knowing that in the most important moments of my life (at births and deaths, graduations and first encounters), this information will prove essential; in my book, Victoria does the same.
So, given the parallels between my character and myself, it was understandable that my husband made the mistake he did. I reassured him I felt loved, and secure, and supported in my role as a new mother.
But my poor husband—he can’t win. Soon after this conversation he brought me flowers—red roses—and I wrinkled my nose, as Victoria would have done.
“Didn’t you pay attention to my book at all?” I said. “Orange next time.”
But even as I complained, I set about arranging the roses in my favorite glass vase and placing them in the center of our dining room table. And then I smelled them, and my whole body flooded with contentment.
“Thank you,” I said, kissing my husband. “That’s what I meant to say.”
I really do love flowers; even red roses. And deep down, I’m pretty sure Victoria does too.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh is a writer and co-founder of Camellia Network, a non-profit working to activate networks of citizens in every community to provide the critical support young people need to transition from foster care to adulthood (www.camellianetwork.org). Her first novel, The Language of Flowers, was released in August 2011.