New to Me: Flowers in the Attic

A forbidden classic, Flowers in the Attic is the story of four siblings subjected to years of abuse by their mother and grandmother.’  It was the Twilight of the 1980s: wildly popular and passed around by teens, with the added bonus of being “dirty.”‘  But with today’s teens eagerly reading the chaste romance between a girl and a vampire, how does Flowers in the Attic compare?

Flowers in the Attic
V.C. Andrews
Published 1979

Cathy and her siblings-older brother Christopher and younger twins Carrie and Cory-all take after their parents.’  The whole Dollenganger family are blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned beauties.’  But the death of their father breaks up their home and ends their extravagent lifestyle.’  Their mother Corrinne decides the only option is to return to her family’s palatial mansion in Virgina.’  However, Corrinne was disinherited years ago, for getting married–and to her half-uncle.’  That was seen as sin in the eyes of her parents, and Corrinne knows that she can’t reveal her children until she’s back in her father’s good graces.’  So Cathy and her siblings will be hidden in a small room and the attic of the mansion’s north wing, with only their mother and grandmother knowing of their existence.’  Christopher is fourteen, Cathy is twelve, and Carrie and Cory are four.’  And a concealement that was supposed to last for a few weeks at most stretches into years . . . with horrifying results.

Even thirty years later, Flowers in the Attic still shocks the reader.’  There’s physical abuse, religious hysteria, rape, poisoning and incest.’  Yet these events occur against a backdrop of normality; the novel doesn’t really condemn any of these events.’  For many of us, incest merits a shudder, thanks to a set of taboos that stretch back to Biblical times.’  And the grandmother certainly reflects a Judeo-Christian viewpoint regarding the actions of her daughter and her husband.’  But Grandmother’s constant refrains about sin and wickedness, not to mention her cruel actions, does much to undermine the reader’s natural antipathy towards incest.’  After all, who else can Cathy and Chris get comfort from?’  Add in the potent cocktail of teenage hormones, coupled with adolescents’ under-developed reasoning skills, and incest is bound to happen under such conditions.’  This certainly doesn’t make Cathy and Chris’s behavior acceptable to most of us, but it can’t be said that the incest is just about titillation.

Yet Flowers in the Attic inflicts these horrible events primarily upon the narrator Cathy, simply because she’s a girl who’s entering puberty.’  Cathy is questioning and disobedient.’  Cathy is vain of her beautiful hair and proud of her developing figure.’  Cathy is turning into a woman–and a woman, not unlike her ancestor Eve, is full of deceit and must be punished.’  That’s the mindset that comes across in the novel.’  Cathy is whipped, has her hair covered in tar, and is raped by her brother.’  That certainly seems like punishment for being a young woman.’  Other characters suffer, too: Christopher is whipped and feels guilt over his attack on Cathy, Carrie and Cory grow up without sunlight or fresh air.’  Yet Cathy is subject to the worst treatment.

Teens who have read Twilight could pick up Flowers in the Attic and be surprised at the subject matter.’  Yet the style of the writing will be very familiar: the foreshadowing, the atmospheric settings, the sense of hidden secrets waiting to be revealed.’  And in its way, Flowers in the Attic is innocent, too.’  It’s all strange new feelings and stolen glances, with only a few scenes that describe Cathy and Chris’s developing bodies or sexual acts.’  So perhaps Flowers in the Attic is the ultimate forerunner to Twilight.’  But I wouldn’t recommend suggesting it during a reader’s advisory interview.’  Flowers in the Attic is still the book that you read secretly, after you got a copy from your friend with the covers torn off and the “sexy” parts underlined.

Writing with any degree of seriousness about Flowers in the Attic was a challenge, because it’s a book that’s not designed to be anything other than a fast-paced, steamy read.’  I really had never read this, and even as an adult I occasionally went “Ewwwww!!!” at different moments, because I couldn’t believe what I was reading.’  But you can’t help but see the appeal of this book, even now when teens know so much more about the darker side of life.’  But I think reading Flowers in the Attic is one of those “part of being a teenager” moments that I’m not sad to have missed out on.’  Anyone else want to share their stories about reading the books they had to hide?

About Melissa Rabey

I'm a teen librarian for a library system in Maryland. I became a librarian because I love books, I love technology, and I wanted to connect people with those two things. I'm happy that I get to do all this and even more.
Bookmark the permalink.

3 Comments

  1. My mother (a devout Catholic) read and owns all of the VC Andrews books – even the ones published posthumously. As small children, my siblings and I loved to play with them, because they typically had covers with scary house and above that, a cutout through which you saw the frightened face of the protagonist. Then, if you opened the cover, it revealed that the girl’s face was actually part of a larger family portrait. We LOVED playing with these and making up stories about the families.

    Of course, when I hit 6th grade, I decided it was time to give the books a read. I started with My Sweet Audrina (creepy) and went onto the Dollanganger series (majorly whacked out in the many ways you describe). I don’t know that I actually understood half of what was happening, but I knew it was disturbing. Before long, the whole class was reading them and passing them around. And never, not once, did my mother say anything bad or discouraging about me reading them. Heck, we even taped the TV movie for Flowers in the Attic. We weren’t allowed to watch the movie “Ghost” at my 8th grade sleepover, but I’d been reading VC Andrews since I was 11.

  2. I have to admit the one and only author my mother ever forbade me to read was V.C. Andrews. I was never denied the chance to read anything else, ever…so of course I went right out and found them on my own to see WHY I wasn’t supposed to read them.
    They lure you in, like watching a car wreck or COPS on TV. It’s horrific in a lot of ways, but strangely compelling, and as a teenager, these books were impossible to put down. I felt dirty when I read them, but then I was proud that I had read them. I was so shy and unassertive in most of my life, this was my little rebellion!

  3. My cousins (1 and 2 years older than me) read all the VC Andrews when we were fairly young (maybe 11, 12, and 13) and thought we were just the coolest kids. As I remember it, the oldest found it in her mom’s nightstand drawer, read it in stolen spurts, and then passed it along to her younger sister and I. We, in turn, shared it with all our friends, of course. I recently found my 14 year old non-reader niece reading it, and was amused to see her try and hide it from me 🙂 I guess I’m an adult now that I’m 25…but I told her my story about reading it when I was in like 5th or 6th grade, and we had a good laugh.

    Other books my cousins and I passed around: “Forever” by Judy Blume, Stephen King books, and any romance books where the cover had a guy with his shirt off or a girl in a corset.

Comments are closed