Let’s Talk About Flowers in the Attic, the Novel

[E] Selena MacIntosh*Book Club14 Comments

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The message of V.C. Andrews’ frequently dog-eared, salacious classic, Flowers in the Attic, is clear. Never lock your conceived-in-incest, teenage children in an attic. No good will come of it. Note: this post talks about about physical abuse and incest within the context of the novel. 

Flowers in the Attic entered my life during my early teenage years, close on the heels other Gen X treasures about penises, Judy Blume’s Wifey and Forever. (Ralph was an American hero.) My friend who tended to know about these things far earlier than I did passed on the V.C. Andrews novel with the siren phrase “If you liked Wifey, this will blow your mind.” Sold.

Some eCard reads "When my children disobey me, I read them Flowers in the Attic as a bedtime story."

“Mommy, what does Devil’s spawn mean?”

A few summers later, the book was made into a movie with the same name, starring Kristy “Buffy 1.0″ Swanson and Louise “Kai Ratched” Fletcher. And some blond dude who was never heard from again.

Conveniently, we’ll be live-blogging both the 1987 flick, and the new Lifetime movie (which is rumored to be much more true to the book) on Saturday. Get your powdered doughnuts ready, readers, we’re going to have an afternoon/evening of spontaneous drinking games and reaction .gifs. But enough housekeeping, let’s get to the good stuff. Today, we’re covering Part One, and we’ll discuss the rest of the book next week.

General Thoughts

Reading this book as a grown-ass adult, I found myself saying just that, “Let’s get to the good stuff” (heh.) frequently while reading the first half of the novel. Ms. Andrews, it seems, really liked describing things. In the most intricate detail possible. Her descriptions are frequently just creepy enough to foreshadow the rafter-rattling events to come, which gives them some literary value, but my eyes glazed over while reading several passages not too different from this one:

In my opinion, olden-​day people really knew how to dress! How I would love to flounce around in a frilly chemise over pantaloons, with dozens of fancy petticoats over the wire hoops, all bedecked in ruffles, lace, embroidery, with flowing ribbons of velvet or satin, and my shoes would be of satin and over all this bedazzling finery would be a lacy parasol to shade my golden curls, and keep the sun from my fair, unwrinkled complexion. And I’d carry a fan to elegantly cool myself, and my eyelids would flutter and bewitch. Oh, what a beauty I’d be!

Andrews’ heroines, even and especially those created by her ghostwriter, Andrew Neiderman, are always exquisitely beautiful women, trapped in ugly circumstances. Her books will devote pages to lavish descriptions of whichever woman is at the center of whichever story, from her radiant hair to her dainty toes; Andrews clearly had some thoughts on physical beauty. This piece, by Tammy Oler on Slate, brings up some interesting details about Andrews about which I was unaware. For most of her life, she was unable to leave her home due to a disability, and her mother, to whom she dedicated Flowers in the Attic (ouch.), was her primary caregiver. It’s hard not to wonder how that experience affected her world view, especially in the context of re-reading her most famous book. While Cathy eventually ends up hating her mother, in the beginning of the book, she makes it clear she worships Momma, and Momma’s beauty.

On Fridays, Momma spent half the day in the beauty parlor having her hair shampooed and set and her fingernails polished, and then she’d come home to take a long bath in perfumed-​oiled water. I’d perch in her dressing room, and wait to watch her emerge in a filmy negligee. She’d sit at her dressing table to meticulously apply makeup. And I, so eager to learn, drank in everything she did to turn herself from just a pretty woman into a creature so ravishingly beautiful she didn’t look real. The most amazing part of this was our father thought she didn’t wear makeup! He believed she was naturally a striking beauty.

The men in this family, as we’ll soon learn, are really something. They’re either dead (if they’re good in any way), evil beyond belief, or attractive and bright as a bag of hammers. There may be some overlap, later in the series. Daddy Dollanganger was clearly one of the hammer bags.

Mothers are as omnipresent in Flowers in the Attic as long, drawn out descriptions of old, dusty furniture. Olivia, the monstrous grandmother who constantly worries her captive charges will fall into inevitable sin is mother to Corrine, the uncle-marrying (spoiler! He’s not heavy, or her uncle, he’s her brother), child-hiding, pampered, spoiled, numbskull who can never manage to type more than 20 wpm, because she always figured she was pretty enough to get as many rich husbands as she might need. Corrine is mother to Cathy, the angry ballerina with a surprisingly advanced vocabulary for a 12-year-old, who is in turn a proxy mother to doomed twins, Cory and Carrie.

Child in screenshot speaks to her pet about her sick twin brother. Text reads "Don't worry, Fred, he's coming back."

Spoiler: She’s lying, Fred.

Synopsis

The story begins in the idyllic suburbs of Pennsylvania, where our narrator, Cathy Dollanganger, tells us about her perfect parents, who shower each other with kisses and affection, and her lovely blond siblings. Older brother Christopher, who we will later learn is terrible, wants to be a doctor. Younger twins Cory and Carrie originally make Cathy worry her “devastatingly handsome” daddy will love them more than her, but she learns to love them when her father gives her creepy presents. For a family who literally lock each other in attics, the Dollangangers have some real boundary issues.

As happens when we meet attractive couples who seem to love each other very much in the early chapters of this genre of book, one or both of the parents is living on borrowed time. Handsome daddy dies in a car wreck on the way to his 36th birthday party. Cathy’s mother, the beautiful and apparently daft Corrine, has no marketable skills to speak of. Confident her husband was going to be rich at any time, she convinced him to buy all their nice things on credit. Without any job skills, and no money to pay the bank, soon the remaining Dollangangers were on their way to foreclosure.

Momma Corrine reveals a plan. Although she’s never revealed it to her children, Corrine comes from an extremely wealthy family, who banished her and removed her from her father’s will. Desperate, she writes home, begging for forgiveness and a place for her and her children to live. Eventually, Corrine’s mother relents, and Corrine takes the children to her childhood home in Virginia, in the middle of the night. There, they are greeted by Olivia Foxworth, mother to Corrine, clad head to toe in grey taffeta, not unlike a grandmother in wolf’s clothing. Here we see the contrast between beautiful protagonist Cathy and the woman who is about to (spoiler: not really) become her nemesis.

I studied that tall, big woman, who was, I presumed, our grandmother. As I looked her over, seeking wrinkles and heavy jowls, I found out she was not as old as I had at first presumed. Her hair was a strong, steel-​blue color, drawn back from her face in a severe style which made her eyes appear somewhat long and cat-​like. Why, you could even see how each strand of hair pulled her skin up in little resentful hills and even as I watched, I saw one hair spring free from its moorings! Her nose was an eagle’s beak, her shoulders were wide, and her mouth was like a thin, crooked knife slash. Her dress, of gray taffeta, had a diamond brooch at the throat of a high, severe neckline. Nothing about her appeared soft or yielding; even her bosom looked like twin hills of concrete.

When establishing herself as the Voldemort in this story, Olivia presents the children with a list of 22 rules to be followed while living in Foxworth Hall. Including this gem:

Six: you are never to be idle. You will devote five hours each day to studying, and use the remainder of your time to develop your abilities in some meaningful way. If you have any skills, abilities or talents, you will seek to improve upon them, and if you have no abilities, or talents, or skills, you will read the Bible; and if you cannot read, then you will sit and stare at the Bible, and try to absorb through the purity of your thoughts the meaning of the Lord and his ways.

Let’s try this at home. Pick up that classic you’ve not explicitly denied reading to your smart friends, plop it down on your desk, and stare at it with pure thoughts. Do you feel like you get it now?

Olivia Foxworth has failed us.

Early in captivity, Olivia drags a stiff and broken Corrine in front of her children, and demands the younger woman show the kids the welts that line her back. Olivia wants the children to know that sin is punished harshly in Foxworth Hall. She tells the children that Corrine’s sin was falling in love with her half-uncle (spoiler: brother!) and any children she created in her sin marriage were “devil’s spawn.” Olivia is nothing if not subtle. Later, when five-year-old twins Cory and Carrie challenge her, she knocks them across the room.

Days stretch into weeks, and weeks into months, as the children slowly lose hope their magpie momma is ever going to get them out of the attic. The older children try to keep the younger ones occupied, which proves fruitless until the dark, cavernous, very dirty attic above them, where they are allowed to roam freely after the maids finish cleaning the floor below, is transformed into a magical garden of paper flowers, trees, and animals. While the children don’t exactly thrive, they fall into a comfortable routine of creative activities. Christopher even creates a place for Cathy to practice her beloved ballet, by nailing a barre to the wall of the attic. More on that later, let’s talk about Christopher.

On Christopher Dollanganger, Who Is Troublesome

Christopher is, as the kids say, problematic.

We get our first clue there is something not quite right about him when he regularly says things like this:

The wish spoken by Cory put thoughts into Chris’s head, for he turned in a slow circle, giving the huge attic an appraising survey. “Admittedly this attic is a grim and dreary place,” he mused, “but why can’t we, as a constructive way to use our creative talents, bring about a metamorphosis and turn this ugly caterpillar into a brilliant soaring butterfly?”

Said no 14-year-old, ever.

Christopher worships his mother, and believes all the lies she tells the children. Long past the point when Cathy has written her off as a liar and a cruel, cruel fraud, Christopher retains his faith in her. This is in direct contrast to what he claims to want in his future wife. Gird your loins, potential suitors, this one’s going to be taken. (Spoiler!)

He would meet and fall in love with the most beautiful, sexy woman who was brilliant, understanding, charming, witty and enormous fun to be with; she’d be the perfect housekeeper, the most faithful of devoted wives, the best of mothers, and she’d never nag, or complain, or cry, or doubt his judgment, or be disappointed or discouraged if he made stupid mistakes on the stock market and lost all of their money. She’d understand he’d done his best, and soon he’d make a fortune again with his wits and clever brains.

Cathy calls him on his bullshit, in her own problematic way.

Boy, did he leave me feeling low. How in the world was I ever going to fill the needs of a man like Chris? Somehow or other, I knew he was setting the standard from which I’d judge all my future suitors. “Chris, this intelligent, charming, witty, gorgeous woman, can’t she have even one little flaw?” “Why should she have flaws?” “Take our mother, for instance, you think she is all of those things, except, perhaps, brilliant.” “Momma’s not stupid!” he defended vehemently. “She’s just grown up in the wrong kind of environment! She was put down as a child, and made to feel inferior because she was a girl.”

But her ideal isn’t much better than his.

As for me, after I’d been a prima ballerina for a number of years and was ready to marry and settle down, I didn’t know what kind of man I wanted if he didn’t measure up to Chris, or my father. I wanted him handsome, I knew that, for I wanted beautiful children. And I wanted him brilliant, or I might not respect him. Before I accepted his diamond engagement ring, I’d sit him down to play games, and if I won time and again, I’d smile, shake my head, and tell him to take his ring back to the store.

As I think we’ve established, this family has some issues.

As we get to the end of the first part of the novel, we begin to see signs that all of Olivia (and Corinne’s (spoiler!)) efforts to keep Chris and Cathy from repeating their parents’ sin are in fact making that sin inevitable.

Once I looked up from my concluding dying swan spasms, and I saw Chris standing in the attic shadows, watching with the oddest expression on his face. Soon he’d be having a birthday, his fifteenth. How had it come about that already he seemed a man and not a boy? Was it only that vague look in his eyes that said he was moving quickly from childhood? On full pointe I performed a sequence of those very small, even steps which are supposed to give the impression the dancer is gliding across the stage and creating what is poetically called “a string of pearls.” In such a way I flitter-​glided over to Chris and held out my arms. “Come, Chris, be my danseur; let me teach you the way.”

She teaches him to waltz and foxtrot, but he balks at learning anything else. Cathy tells him he’s going to have a much easier time finding a woman if he’s not such a cardboard cutout of a human being (projecting), but he’s steadfast. Until, that is, Cathy puts on an Elvis record, and he is corrupted by the magic of a gyrating pelvis. Like one is.

Further Reading

Before next week’s discussion, check The Toast’s Robin Wasserman’s fascinating interview with Ann Patty, who was V.C.’s editor for Flowers in the Attic, and many subsequent titles. Hop in the wayback machine to view this classic Jezebel post from their Fine Lines (I miss this so much. So much.) series by the lovely Lizzie Skurnick. Definitely skim the recaps and more on Trapped in the Attic, and then tell the author to email me because I think we should be friends. Not required, but worth your time: A real live LiveJournal devoted to FitA, complete with blurry icon pics and fanfic a-plenty. And, like a breeze on a hot day, there’s always Tumblr. Yahoo overlords be damned, Pinterest will never catch the magic that is Tumblr.

I leave you with a .gif of a scene from the 1987 movie that isn’t from the book, but might change your life.

A .gif from 1987 film Flowers in the Attic. A young woman attempts to get her mother to eat a cookie.

Spoiler: She doesn’t eat it.

What are your thoughts on Part One?

 

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[E] Selena MacIntosh*

Editor-in-Chief at Persephone Magazine
Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.
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[E] Selena MacIntosh*Let’s Talk About Flowers in the Attic, the Novel

14 Comments on “Let’s Talk About Flowers in the Attic, the Novel”

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  1. Avatar of Neisha Chetty
    Neisha Chetty

    Does anyone in the literary world even know the word “subtext” ? Were you people paying attention in that class ?

    Yes there are many criticisms I have of VC Andrews, but most of these blogs are concerned with penis size , stupid quips by naïve fourteen years olds about their ideal women and the romantic ramblings of a twelve year old whose a naif narrator, that they forget the message is about the cycle of abuse. When a book starts of with a quote from the bible people, it isn’t Mills and Boons. And frankly when you langor in the sludge of trivial and trashy.. You’re going to miss the symbolic meaning and the subtext.

    Andrews was concerned about the whys.

    This is excerpt from the Face of Fear interview
    “When she first seriously thought about writing, she began to study psychology: “The crime wasn’t nearly as fascinating as the motivation. ‘Why, why, why?’ was the question foremost on my mind–and that’s what I write about. The whys, the wherefores, and the results.”

    What’s missed is the philosophy behind the books, Andrews themes of
    “Hatred and vengeance (all the other Foxworths” vs understanding and compassion (Chris)”

    You miss that Cathy changes from a naif to an unreliable narrator in POTW no better than Corrine. And why on earth would a guy want to marry his own sister and try to ruin his own career.

    “My dad began to shiver uncontrollably, as if winter had come unexpectedly into our living room. Had mom spoke the truth ? Was he the one who was behind all the deaths in our lives ? I was scared too, for I loved him” jory

    “Oh, golly! I was greatly disturbed, kind of numb feeling inside. So many accidents. Two brothers dead and daddy ,too, all from accidents. My bleak look met with Chris. He wasn’t smiling.”
    Flowers in the Attic

    And I’m going to be the universe’s biggest bitch holding back the why- You miss the fact that Cathy is a …

  2. Avatar of Megan
    Megan

    !! This is Megan from …in the Attic, thank you so much for the shout-out! I loved this article, Christopher IS just the worst thing ever, isn’t he? Ugh and he’s poor Cathy’s endgame.

    I’m looking forward to the live-blogging!

    1. Avatar of Neisha Chetty
      Neisha Chetty

      Of course he is, Megan ! Being a doctor is just God awful ! What was he even thinking?

      Me, I believe people who want to bring about peace and understanding are the worst ! The pits !

      Try as I might, I resented what they were doing, what they had done, risking scandal, risking ruining my life and Bart’s, Cindy’s too, and all because one man couldn’t find another woman to love. And that one woman must have done something to keep him hopeful and faithful. ”

      So what is it that Cathy did ?
      “Behind me lay a trail of dead me”
      “Spanish moss love that clung and clung until it killed” POTW
      Someone had to cut Julian’s tube ? Someone had to take a candle to the attic, someone had to have sex with Paul to inherit money in the Chapter “Reaping the harvest” ! That someone wasn’t Chris

      “Out of the four Dresden Dolls only two were left. And one would do nothing. He had taken an oath to preserve life and keep alive even those who don’t deserve to live “

  3. Avatar of Natasha
    Natasha

    The part I remember best is the fancy dress Corrine wears, that’s high in front but so low in back it shows her butt cleavage. And later Cathy wears a dress like it, but maybe in a later book?

  4. Avatar of [E] Slay Belle
    [E] Slay Belle

    I completely forgot how young the kids are. In my head, they’re the same age as the actors in the movies, because suddenly that makes the incest better?

  5. Avatar of [E] pileofmonkeys
    [E] pileofmonkeys

    Aaahhh, I need to hurry up an re-read (again, for the like 40th time) before the movie comes out.

    Christopher is creepy, Cathy is cracked, Cory croaks, Carrie is a caricature, and Corrine is criminally covetous. The whole damn Dollanganger dynasty is dangerously deranged and deluded.

    1. Avatar of [E] Selena MacIntosh*
      [E] Selena MacIntosh*

      You’ve got 48 hours, and I approve of your ample alliteration alluding to the amazeballs awesomeness.

      I left out this bit of Christopher wisdom:

      When it’s summer, I like summer best; yet when fall comes, I like fall best, and when winter comes, then that’s my favorite season, and then comes spring, and I think spring is best.

      Well don’t you just.

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