Sunday, January 22, 2023

Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews


Is anyone actually surprised I enjoyed this book? Probably not. I have a reputation on here for curating some of the best/worst vintage books out there. I have a pretty high bar for not getting squicked out by books, but FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC really tested me because, well, if you know you know. It's gross as fuck. And SO UNCOMFORTABLE.

I was late to the V.C. Andrews game. My mother didn't keep books like this in the house, so I missed out on being traumatized by The Flame and the Flower and Flowers in the Attic at thirteen or fourteen-years-old like some of my peers. The first V.C. Andrews book I read was actually written by her ghostwriter, and if you're asking, "Well, what's the difference?" think about New Coke versus Coca-Cola Classic. One kinda sorta follows the formula, but it's clearly Pepsi in a red can, and nobody wants that. V.C. Andrews-written-as-Andrew-Neiderman has bubbles and is brown and comes in a can, but it's missing that je ne sais quoi that makes it a Classic.

The first time I read Flowers, I was in my twenties. And I liked it then, too. Sort of? I think you need to know going in that this is basically a bodice-ripper with preteens/teenagers as the characters. Child abuse is a predominant theme. Who can forget the story of the cute little nuclear family that's disrupted when the father is grotesquely burned beyond recognition in a car accident? With no one else to pay the bills (women working? Ha, this is the FIFTIES), the mother writes pleading letters to her parents, begging them for money. Which is something that many college students and college graduates still do to this day. The only difference? Your parents probably didn't disinherit you for your incest marriage and whip you for your sins. That's right, it turns out mother and father were actually niece and uncle. WHOOPS.

I'm not tagging that as a spoiler because you find it out pretty early on. But some major spoilers are coming, so hold on to your hats and get your pearl clutchers ready, because shit is about to get real.

Chris, Cathy, Carrie, and Cory (who are they? the Cardashians???) are all locked up in an attic until the mother can convince the grandfather to love her again and put her back in this will. He's on death's door, she assures them, so it shouldn't take long. In the meantime, they're at the mercy of the abusive grandmother, who seems strangely preoccupied with what kinds of sins they might get up to in the attic space she's locked them in. At first, things are basically Diet Suck. They aren't happy but they still think their mother loves them and guilt propels her to make their stay as comfortable as possible. This is what is known as the honeymoon period and don't worry, it won't last long.

It doesn't take long for things to get gross. Cathy and Chris end up wrist deep in shit and piss, cleaning up soiled sheets and backed-up toilets. When the grandmother catches Cathy studying herself naked in a mirror while Chris watches (and yes, they're both still underage at this point), Cathy gets whipped and then the grandmother drugs her and paints her hair with tar, forcing her brother to cut off all her hair for their vanity (after starving them). They get starved again at some point and Chris actually cuts his wrist and forces them to drink his blood for nourishment. Cathy gets raped by her brother after he thinks she's fantasizing about someone else, and then he's like, "Didn't mean to rape you, sorry," and she's like, "I could have stopped you if I wanted to, and also I asked for it by wearing slutty clothes." Also, pretty sure that since their parents are already related, that makes this incest-plus. Somebody gets poisoned by arsenic. There are an uncomfortable amount of passages describing young kids wearing lingerie or underwear (the youngest kid, I guess, likes to show off her fancy panties, which she also shits multiple times, forcing her older sister to wash them-- ew, ew, ew). Oh, and Cathy goes out to the roof, determined to throw herself off of it, but backs down at the last second. Yay.

Basically, anything that's there to be triggered by is in this book. I can say with certainty that there is no way something like this could get written today. Someone would 100% take the author by the hand and say, "Maybe don't do that." As they should, because there are some things that should just be hinted at in a puberty book and not used as fodder for the world's best worst soap opera, you know? The only way you can get through this book is by saying, "Oh, it was the seventies. Of COURSE it was the seventies. That was the decade that came out with Love's Baby Soft, anything written by Bertrice Small, and Brooke Shields's Calvin Klein jeans ad (okay, technically that was 1980, but that's still basically the seventies and also she was FIFTEEN, wtf). 

The best parts of the book are the intense psychology of the characters. Cathy is a sympathetic and believable gothic heroine, which is drilled into us by the books she reads (Wuthering Heights, Lorna Doone, Jane Eyre). Through her eyes, we witness the disintegration of her belief that the world is just and loving and good, first with the death of her father, then with their inability to sway the grandmother's affections through obedience, and finally, in the gradual crumbling of their mother's morality and compassion; she has been corrupted by the house and in the end, she has become as cold and callous as the grandmother. The transformation-- and the lesson-- is a brutal one.

So yeah, hopefully this arms you with what you need before going in-- if you decide to read this book at all (and if you don't, I seriously don't blame you). I for one am excited to read the sequel, which follows Cathy's life as an older teen/adult, once she manages to escape the house and get her revenge. YAAASS.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

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