YA Book Club: V.C. Andrews’ ‘Flowers in the Attic’
“This book is dedicated to my mother.”
Flowers in the Attic kicks off with a bang through a dedication to the author’s mother. That is a bold move, indeed, once you actually read the book—and friends, if you haven’t read this masterpiece of smut, I wholly recommend you do.
Continuing on with the May theme of books we read as kids (but probably shouldn’t have) we’re covering the incest book because let’s be honest—that’s the first thing anyone remembers about this gloriously trashy book. Rightfully so, too, because as someone with brothers (3, in fact) the thought of…you know what? I can’t write it out, it’s so gross to me that I can’t even hypothetically go there. Yet V.C. Andrews went there—and brought us along for her wild ride.
As a refresher, Flowers in the Attic is about the Dollanganger family and the weird, creepy relationships they have with each other. Everything is good for them, until it’s not when Mr. Dollanganger dies in a car crash and his wife, Corrine, decides the only reasonable thing to do is pack up her four children, and force them to live in her mother’s attic while she goes out and lives her best life.
Hey, we’ve all been there.
Anyway, so Corrine packs up Chris, Cathy (our protagonist), and twins Carrie and Cory, and off to the attic they go. If you were suspecting that a grandmother who insists on having her grandkids live in an attic, unseen and unheard (while she has a beautiful mansion full of empty rooms) would be a kind, warm, and loving grandma, you are the type of person I would like to introduce to my MLM side hustle, because Grandma is mean, weird, and puritanical. Duh.
So, there’s a lot of rules to living in the attic (and Grandma is really obsessed with making sure the siblings don’t have unclean thoughts about each other, which in retrospect, seems not so bonkers) but Cathy and co. make the best of it. See, they only expected to live in the attic for a little bit, but Corrine isn’t about the mom life anymore, so hours stretch into days, stretch into weeks … into months … into years.
Don’t worry, Corrine does pop in, occasionally, to give the children new clothes, tell them about all the boat trips she’s been taking, and remind them that they’re children of the attic only until her hateful father dies, then they can become fully fledged children of the house. It’s important to have goals.
So, you may be wondering why Cathy and the C-gang are confined to the attic. Well, thems the rules of the house. See, it turns out that Corinne’s marriage left a bad taste in her parent’s mouth because Corinne married her half-uncle (her father’s half-brother) and ran away with him. So, uh, her parents weren’t happy about that. As a result, Corinne’s parents disinherited her. It happens. They only accepted her back into the fold (sans children) after she was beaten mercilessly by her father for her disobedience. How did we read this as kids?!?!?
So, the kids are confined to the attic until Corinne’s father dies.
Only he does die, and the kids are still confined to the attic. Did I mention that Grandma Dollanganger also occasionally beats and starves the children, too? As a way to get them to comply with her rules, and keep them Christian. This book is a lot.
Now, let’s get to the really f*cked up part (because if you thought this was it, you clearly haven’t read this book). So, Corinne gets married to a guy, and they both move into the mansion. By this time, Cathy and Chris have been sneaking out into the larger house for years. They have taken to visiting their mother’s bedroom when they know she will be out and stealing stuff from her because at this point they realize the only way they’re getting out of the attic is by escaping it. So, one night, Cathy sneaks in and sees her step-dad (who is sleeping). She kisses him for reasons known only to her (and V.C. Andrews) and goes back and tells Chris. So, he rapes her (!!!!!!) (Note: I did not read this as rape as a child, because Cathy tells Chris, after the fact, that she wanted this to happen. Friends, as a grown a*s woman, there is nothing else this could be read as.) But it’s OK, because Chris apologizes for it, so let’s all move on from what happened, OK?! (Nothing about this situation is OK!)
…and a little while later, Cory dies.
How, you ask?
Well, it turns out that the food the children were given (sugared donuts, specifically) were laced with arsenic, and well, the children had to be disposed of. Don’t ask me why. I’m not the type of person to want to lock anyone up in an attic in the first place, so, like, your guess is as good as mine here.
Anyway, the remaining children finally escape that attic after almost 4 years in it, and it’s revealed by Chris that their mother would only inherit her family’s wealth if she had no living descendants (he found a will, I think. To be honest, by this point the mundane aspect of this story got lost in the cacophony of filth) so, uh, I guess that explains the poisoned donuts.
The book ends with the remaining Dollangangers getting on a train (to Florida, the only time, in the history of the world that Florida was a step up from where someone had previously been), and opting not to turn everyone in to the police, in order for the three of them to stay together as a family. The end.
So, yes, obviously the part that stuck out in my mind about this book, years on, was the incest. I did not remember it being rape (it was definitely rape) at the time, and … I just don’t know, man. Flowers in the Attic is a symphony of trash and I feel like trying to put any modern-day lens on it in order to critique it is an exercise in futility. This is a bonkers book. It’s about locking children in an attic, how could it not end the way it did?!
I’m more or less shocked that it exists. Somehow this magnum opus of glorious garbage was sent to a publishing house, and it was approved. Then, it somehow became a slumber party staple. This was a book a lot of girls I knew growing up read between the ages of 12-14. My own brother had a copy in his bookshelf. I’m also ninety percent sure our mother had no idea what it was about. Not because she wouldn’t have let us read it, but because she would have brought up how trashy it was to us a lot; because my mom loved to bring up the trashy s*it we read as kids. See: Valley of the Dolls.
Anyway. This is one of those things you read that stays with you but sometimes you remember snatches of its plot and wonder if it really happened in the book, or if it was a fever dream. If you’re ever wondering if something was a fever dream or a V.C. Andrews story, I guarantee you it was a V.C. Andrews story.
We didn’t even touch on the two bananas movies that were based on this story. The 1987 version starred pre-crazy Republican, original Buffy Kristy Swanson, and ends with the mother falling off a balcony on her wedding day if I recall. The recent Lifetime movie definitely was truer to the book, but honestly, with this story, anything goes, as long as it’s f*cking weird, so both are spiritual successors to the Flowers in the Attic legacy.
I very much look forward to reading all of your “WTF even was this book” thoughts in the comments. Continuing on with our theme next week we’ll be covering Stephen King’s Carrie. Until next time!
Header Image Source: Pocket Books/Amazon
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