Book Review: Flowers in the Attic

My copy of the book.

Hey, I finally finished another book! Excuses, but I was on such a roll this year until my early October Washington D.C. trip threw me off the reading tracks, then NaNoWriMo in November, and the puppy, but alas, you’re not here for that. I buckled down yesterday with this arctic storm hitting the Midwest and finished V.C. Andrews’ 1979 novel, Flowers in the Attic. Andrews’ book is one of those books that is so much in the zeitgeist, where even though I’ve never read it, I have a sense of it. At least, I knew of its most controversial part and the general premise. My sister-in-law, who I often talk books with, has been talking about this one as long as I’ve known her, so, it was exciting, inasmuch as one can describe such a book as “exciting,” to finally read it and get beyond what has made it controversial.

The aforementioned premise is that Corinne Dollanganger’s husband, Christopher dies in an accident, leaving her and their four children behind. We come to find out that Corinne is the daughter of a wealthy family known as the Foxworths. Her father disavowed her because she married Christopher, who we learn, is his much younger half-brother — in other words, Corinne married her half-uncle (presaging perhaps). And her mother is an authoritarian religious follower, who wields an iron fist when it comes to what she sees as sinful behavior.

That sets the stage for the book: Corinne believes by moving back in with her parents and stowing the children away in the attic, she can cajole her father to write her back into his will because of his failing health and seemingly imminent death. The reason for the stowing is that he can’t know about the children because that would just raise his ire even more. The children are Chris Jr., 14-years-old; Cathy, 12-years-old; and the twins, Cory and Carry, 5-years-old. When they first arrive in the room at the top of the expensive mansion with an attic above that room, they’re told by their mother they idolize and love their stay will be one night or two. They also learn quickly that the grandmother has all of these strict rules about praying, not looking at each other, not talking to her unless she speaks first, and to be quiet as mice. She’s basically a sociopath, who wants nothing to do with the children because they are the personification of her daughter’s sin; Chris especially because of his name and resemblance to his father.

Chris and Cathy are at that exact age where they’re still clearly children, but are desperate to not only seem older and capable, but want to impress and prove to their mother that they are, and again, Chris especially because he wants to fill his father’s shoes as the new (and only) “man” of the house. But in their desire to seem older, they essentially take on the role of parents to the twins and try to make their circumstances not seem so dire. They fix up the attic, make it seem like a fun place to be, and tend to the understandably erratic and irritable behavior of the twins. Their actual mother, Corinne, pops in at random times bearing gifts and promises that “soon,” they’ll be free and fabulously wealthy. My emphasis on “and” is because it should be a red flag to any reader that a mother thinks promising fabulous riches to her children rather than actually giving them love and nurture is what they want.

The twins’ arc throughout the novel is bellowing for their “real mamma” to seeing Cathy as their mother, while the arc for Chris and Cathy is seeing beyond the carefully crafted façade of their mother. They must learn not only is she imperfect, but she’s deceitful and negligent of their welfare. Over time, the mother seems to not even notice or care about the twins. Such is the subtler, more sinister evil underpinning the novel. The more obvious evil, which is well-done, is the grandmother, who smothers the children under her draconian rules, starves them of food if they don’t comply, and forces Cathy to cut her hair by drugging her and tarring her long blonde hair. She also mercilessly whips Chris and Cathy (and earlier, the mother) with a switch, and is aggressive and uncaring toward the twins.

Given the unique circumstances of what they are experiencing, the trauma inflicted by the grandmother and on the peripheral by the mother, the unmet needs of their grief over their father’s death, and obviously, experiencing puberty in a vacuum without proper and right parental supervision, Chris and Kathy begin to develop feelings for each other that extend beyond brotherly-sisterly love. When seeing it through the context I just provided, it is controversial in the broad sense of being incest, obviously, but the context helps to explain why it happened. The context makes the incest sad and tragic, not smut for the sake of it. What I do see as particularly controversial and unnecessary (as I think it hurt the Chris character built up to that point) is toward the end of the book, Chris rapes Cathy and Cathy gaslights herself into thinking it was her fault for not meeting his pent-up needs as a man. That is messed up and where I think V.C. erred.

Somehow though, the brother raping his sister is arguably not the worst part of the book in terms of what befalls the characters. The mother stops coming for two months and in a period where the grandmother was also starving them, Chris and Cathy started seriously considering escape but before they could, Chris cut his wrist and fed the twins with his own damn blood; and Chris and Kathy even considered eating mice to gather their strength to escape. They went from making the attic a fun place for the twins to play to that dire of a circumstance. They get more strategic about escape, though, where Chris begins stealing money from their fabulously wealthy mother (another red flag, if she’s so fabulously wealthy and bringing such expensive gifts, why hasn’t she freed them?), who has remarried a much younger man, accounting for her two month absence because they were galivanting around Europe on their honeymoon. When Cathy starts expressing her displeasure with their mother, Corinne gaslights them about how they want for nothing and will be fabulously rich once her dad dies. She’s no better than the grandmother as it turns out, even at the point of being physically abusive.

We later learn that the mother has been poisoning the children with arsenic because her father’s will had a clause where if Corinne had children from the past marriage or her current marriage, she wouldn’t get her inheritance. Cory dies a horrific death from the poisoning and is buried in an unmarked grave under a different name. That is beyond horrific and terrible. But it has the effect of speeding up Chris and Cathy’s escape plans, especially because they see that Carrie is on the precipice of death as well.

They fortunately are able to escape. Unfortunately, in this book, as I understand there are numerous sequels, there is no comeuppance for the terrible mother or terrible grandmother. As if the arsenic poisoning wasn’t enough, the grandfather actually died a year before the climactic end of the book, which the mother hid from the children. And then the mother fled the house with her new husband, leaving her three remaining children behind.

Greed can be a heck of an intoxicating drug and in that sense, Corinne was an addict at the cost of her children. Maybe she loved them at one point, but once her husband died, they became secondary, if a consideration at all, to her inheritance and the life she sought to live without them. Chris and Cathy did the best they could under the circumstances and given their young ages, but they were in no position to take care of themselves in that attic, much less young twins. Their trauma (again, not having read the sequels) will be lifelong and run deep, from the incestuous feelings (and Cathy coming to terms, I hope, with it being rape) to the torment they experienced.

Perhaps the most tragic example in the book of how warped everything becomes is that the book is told through the perspective of Cathy. At the beginning of the book, she talks like the 12-year-old she is, using phrases like golly lolly and golly day, and ample exclamation points. As she matures through puberty and becomes more of a motherly figure to the twins, she still uses that language. Because she entered the attic as a child and she is still a child, despite being forced to unnaturally grow up. I see her as psychologically stunted in that way and thought it was a “nice touch” by Andrews.

If you’re like me and you’ve never read Flowers in the Attic, but you’re aware of it because of it being in the zeitgeist for more than 43 years after its publication, I would recommend reading it because there’s so much more to it than an incestuous relationship. Disturbing, to be sure, but also lovely how these two desperate children try to make flowers of the attic. Some flowers can grow anywhere, after all.

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