It is so appropriate to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw. And as I begin to copy from the old memorandum journals that I kept for so long, a title comes as if inspired. Open the Window and Stand in the Sunshine. Yet, I hesitate to name our story that. For I think of us more as flowers in the attic. Paper flowers. Born so brightly colored, and fading duller through all those long, grim, dreary, nightmarish days when we were held prisoners of hope, and kept captive by green. But we were never to color even one of our paper blossoms yellow.
If you know me, you’ve heard me say that I read my childhood, rather than lived it. I started binge reading at 9. Books were brought to the dinner table, on family outings, and on car rides, where I read until I puked from the motion sickness. Benjamin Franklin is (falsely) credited with saying, “Beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy,” but I say books are the real proof of a divine being.
My interests were varied. I loved stories about families living in “olden times” (Little House on the Prairie, The Witch of Blackbird Pond), graduated quickly to racier subject matter like Teens With Issues – I read Go Ask Alice before I was old enough to know that neither pot or acid cause drug overdoses. I was always especially drawn to both tragic characters (any female in a Bronte novel) and heroic ones (Pippi Longstocking, anything about Amelia Earhart). Reading was the perfect escape for a kid who was herself not the most adventurous.
My first encounter with Flowers in the Attic had me thinking it was going to be scary, as it was in the horror section. I had seen a classmate hiding it in a textbook, clearly unable to put it down. And that cover. Originally, you’d open the house cutout to reveal four creepy children, beautiful, with platinum hair and bright blue eyes rimmed with red, and a ghastly lady looming over them like a malevolent cloud. With a quick perusal of chapter titles like The Wrath of God, I was sold, even if I was kind of scared of that photo and possibly any kind of horror in general. My friends who had snuck the book off their moms’ bookshelves promised all kinds of messed up stuff going on in this book. Spoiler: there’s incest! I suspect I devoured it in one long sitting that included hiding it under the covers and losing a night’s sleep.
When Emilie told me about her Re-Reading Project, I immediately knew I had to pick it up again. It’s been decades since I first read it, but I read it over and over again throughout my adolescence and later teen years, so I always recalled it having all of the elements I love most in a good book: religious fanaticism, discovery of dark family secrets, forbidden love, starvation, general suffering, adolescent ennui, arsenic (any romantic poison), kick-ass female heroines (bonus that the main character was my age).
I dove right back in and lo and behold, I found myself unable put it down. And this is while on break from reading Dark Places, people! Here I had thought everything was so profound in this book only because I had been a teenager when I was so obsessed with it, but damned if I wasn’t again drawn in, crying in all the right places. After seeing the recent movie treatment on Lifetime (and recalling the horrible “tragedy” of a movie that came out years ago where Kristy Swanson, aka the original Buffy, played our heroine), I might have lost a little faith, but really, these movies fail to capture what is special about the book. Seems they can’t make up their mind whether to go full camp or full-on dramatic treatment. So, as a sidenote, I implore film and TV to just leave FITA alone. Unless you’re a genius.
I immediately recognized that so many phrases and images have stayed with me:
–The Dresden Dolls (when the band came out, I wondered if they named themselves after the book and this is partially true).
-Singing to myself Dance Ballerina Dance while enduring many an endless ballet class.
-Whenever I see the colors red and purple, I think of Carrie because these are her favorite colors.
-The lines from when Grandmother comes in to discover Christopher staring at Cathy nekkid.
-I’ll always wish I could throw a Christmas party as grand as the Foxworths’.
-I’ll never look at powdered donuts without thinking they could mask the taste of arsenic pretty well.
-The image of that swan bed.
-Corey playing the banjo and writing depressing lyrics at the age of 7.
It certainly left a lasting impression on my developing mind (and made me appreciate my mom oh-so-much more!)
As a writer, I can’t help but notice the writing is pretty tight, the vocabulary is rich (surely it expanded my vocabulary), and VC Andrews uses adequate metaphors (not the most complex) and what may be obvious, but forgivable, foreshadowing. There’s a trustworthy narrator who has enough distance from the subject matter. The author avoids sentimentality (barely, but just enough), quite a feat given the circumstances. Of course no one can deny her storytelling prowess.
As VC Andrews says herself, “I think I tell a whopping good story. And I don’t drift away from it a great deal into descriptive material. When I read, if a book doesn’t hold my interest about what’s going to happen next, I put it down and don’t finish it. So I’m not going to let anybody put one of my books down and not finish it. My stuff is a very fast read.”
I wondered, too, just who is the intended audience, keeping in mind, it was a best seller back in the day. Bored housewives? (I swear, this is not the Fifty Shades of Grey of the 1980s. The writing is far superior.) Horror fans? Those seeking a modern day Wuthering Heights? All of the above?
My thoughts on character during this read primarily had to do with Corinne, the mother who locks her children in the attic of her ancestral home after she’s left a “penniless” widow. As a kid reading this, I just dismissed her as a bad person, and now that I’m closer to the mom’s age than the childrens’, I wanted to give her much more consideration. I wondered at first if she might be portrayed a bit two-dimensionally, a stock evil character? As a teenager, I was pretty disgusted with her weakness; the idea of a woman that wouldn’t just woman-up and go to work to support her family, but now I wondered if I might be more sympathetic to her “handicap” as a pampered housewife and mother, a grown woman of privilege. Not really.
She’s actually a master manipulator of the worst kind. “Oh but you are heartless and ungrateful children!” she laments after she comes back after long time away, during which, the kids had starved and the grandmother drugged/tarred Cathy. She’s a manipulator and even gets her Oedipal son to forgive her after that and agree that it’s she who is having a difficult time in life.
I again felt that familiar thrill when Cathy repeatedly stands up to her and in the end, demands that she take dying Corey to the hospital. I never underestimate the allowance for a strong female character. Corinne still pissed me off as a less righteous modern day feminist. Check.
I also found myself thinking, would kids these days possibly not mind being locked up with access to wifi and games (because surely Corinne would have supplied them with all of these modern necessities)? I think when I read it for the first time, I might have thought it wasn’t so bad—they had all these books and toys and treasures and Cathy could dance in the attic. On their first Christmas, Corinne had brought them a TV (impressive that the young teens were hyper aware they needed to not let the twins become idiot box addicts). I was similarly impressed when Chris tells Cathy they must go about life pursuing their dreams (becoming a doctor, dancing); force twins to learn how to read and discover their own talents.
I’m not going to dwell so much on incest here (shocking, I know), other than to say that it comes about organically and similar to how I felt reading it when I was younger, I empathized with the kids and felt they were forced into a completely perverted situation as adolescents. I don’t find it titillating, nor disgusting. I think more people concentrate on that being the biggest deal in the book, completely overlooking the fact that you can’t get more disgusting and depraved than locking away four healthy children in a room for 3 years and 4 months and then slowly killing them off. We’ve got a close first person POV, so that makes it even more profoundly disturbing. Incest, big whoop, a bigger deal when I read it the first time. VC Andrews is hardly the first novelist to write about incest, of course. There’s been incest galore ever since the Bible.
Throughout this read and after finishing, I still find myself haunted by the idea of leaving any creature that is dependent on you, no less children, alone to survive locked up, imprisoned with a caretaker that you know is a monster. To slowly die a horrible death. The sheer horror of that. What is almost inconceivable is given an unflinching treatment with adequate restraint (that is, not sensationalist, nor salacious).
The problem is, despite my love for it, the fact that this novel develops into a series (that I similarly devoured, but now have no desire to do so) does kind of cheapen everything as it devolves into more sensationalist subject matter. Not to mention all of the books that her ghostwriters put out. All of them are formulaic. All of them involve incestuous families with big secrets. The families are either extremely wealthy or extremely poor and there’s aspiration to attain riches (which happens thanks to the cliché long-lost rich relative).
One final observation: Flowers in the Attic is described on the cover of new editions simply as a “tale of forbidden romance.” Forbidden, is putting it mildly and this book is definitely not a romance novel! More like, a tale of tragic neglect and its resulting perverted consequences. To be honest, who needs any kind of statement like that on the cover of a best-selling novel (that was published decades ago)?
I almost feel at this point I could write a thesis as to the literary merit of this book, but for the sake of this fun project, I’ll end here. It would be too easy to dismiss Flowers in the Attic as a melodramatic read suitable for those seeking out scandalous entertainment. Did people similarly dismiss classic gothic novels like Madame Bovary and Wuthering Heights (surely this one gave VC some inspiration)? I’m glad I gave it a “second” (or rather, tenth) chance.
Joi Brozek lives, reads and writes in New Orleans. With this re-reading of Flowers in the Attic, she’s made the stunning discovery that she’s been chasing a VC Andrews novel her entire writing life. With this in mind, she returns to the beast of a book she’s been unsuccessfully trying to finish for the past decade.