Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Woman Beyond the Attic: The V.C. Andrews Story by Andrew Neiderman


V.C. Andrews is a beloved icon so I was honestly surprised that her biography had such low ratings until I read the reviews and realized that people were taking issue with the fact that (1) her ghostwriter, Andrew Neiderman, had been selected by the estate to write her biography and (2) apparently he didn't do a very good job (in the eyes of her fans, anyway).

I was late to the V.C. Andrews train. For the longest time, I didn't think I liked her books because someone had given me a bag of her titles but none of the ones she wrote, so there was one about an angry and abusive Southern mom (I know, right? which one?) that was bad and another about a teacher of an abusive school (I know, right? which one?) where the teacher molested her students and also that was bad. I think I poked at two or three more before deciding that V.C. Andrews was not for me.

A few years later, she came up in conversation with one of my friends and my friend was like, "Girl, no. You have to read the ones she actually wrote." And I was like, "She didn't actually write these?" And she was like, "Oh, you sweet summer child." And that was when I found out that OG V.C. only wrote the first four Dollanganger books, MY SWEET AUDRINA, and the first two Casteel books before she died of breast cancer. I believe Andrew Neiderman finished both series with outlines that she had written, after being contracted by her estate, and then the Landry series was the first one he wrote by himself in full.

Now for what it's worth, I'm not a Neiderman hater. I do question hiring on a horror writer to pen gothic novels about young women that tend to be about doomed and forbidden love, but whatever. And also for what it's worth, I think he did a decent job finishing her work and I actually liked the Landry series in a "well, it's not V.C. but it's close" sort of way. Everything went south from there, though. Now it's about vampires and teen escorts and, I guess, this biography.

Despite the low ratings, I went into THE WOMAN BEYOND THE ATTIC with an open mind. And there were things about it I liked. Half this book is actually excerpts from unpublished work V.C. wrote, including a story and two poems and a couple other things. There are also photographs of her and her family that I'm not sure were ever previously released, so that was neat. Where the book goes south is in some of his interpretations about V.C. It goes into strange detail about how pretty she was, and how this got her creepy attention from older men. At one point, Neiderman compares her to Lolita, but in his summation of the book, he makes the erroneous, face-value interpretation that Lolita was actually asking for it (she wasn't-- H.H. is an unreliable narrator and trying to get you, the reader, on his side). He also praises her for downplaying her disability, as if being more vocal about her chronic pain (a rare form of early onset arthritis) would have lessened her work. I found that view incredibly problematic because I think people with disabilities should feel proud about their accomplishments, especially if their disability made it extra hard to achieve them. I don't think it's up to Neiderman to portray people as lesser for discussing about how much harder writing a book is with a disability. Downplaying it was V.C.'s choice, and it seemed obvious to me that she was infantilized by some people for it, and if that's what made her comfortable, then whatever. But V.C. doesn't represent all people with disabilities AND she lived in an era when people were way less open about talking about disability.

The best parts of the book were actually direct quotes from the author's writings. I liked that she was angry about people who blamed the children in her books for things that were the parents' fault. I liked that she seemed to be a feminist, and a lot of her writing was her breaking with some of the conservative thoughts of her town. She seemed to genuinely be grateful for her readers and have a sincere passion for writing, and I think that showed in her books. Which, now that I think about it, is maybe why Neiderman's books never really worked for me. All of V.C.'s heroines had agency. Maybe it wasn't good agency, but they propelled their stories forward. In a lot of Neiderman's books, things just happened to the female protagonists. They were victims of fate, victims of abuse, victims of everything. And there's nothing wrong with being a victim, but it's disheartening to read about characters who are just basically being exploited for the literary equivalent of doom-scrolling. V.C.'s books were like that, too, but I felt like her heroines had an autonomy and a wistfulness that Neiderman's often lacked.

So after skimming through this book, I have to say that I really didn't like it. I can see why fans were upset after reading it or felt betrayed. There were good things about this book and I can appreciate the estate wanting to let the world know more about the mysterious, reclusive author who wrote a series of some truly shocking books, but I'm not sure they picked the right person for the project.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars

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