flowers in the attic coverThe Popular, Scandalous Coming of Age Story

Authorr: V.C. Andrews

Recently, I decided to take a stroll down nostalgia lane and return to a cultural teenage favorite – Flowers in the Attic. This particular offering is one of the few novels actually written by V.C. Andrews herself (and not the extraordinarily prolific line of repetitive ghost writers hired by her estate). Even friends and coworkers who aren’t addicted to novels remember reading this forbidden, guilty treat that marks the transition from child to adult, and hence the beginning of a fall from innocence.

A disturbed coming of age tale, complete with forbidden love (and, of course, sex), hidden secrets, a lineage of betrayal, and greed, Flowers in the Attic follows a seemingly perfect family. There is a beautiful mother, a devoted father, and four children, so perfectly blonde haired and blue eyed they are referred to as dolls. When the father suddenly dies in a car accident, life changes for the worst. Alongside grief comes transition, a slinking back for forgiveness to stern relatives ensconced in a dusty mansion. With forgiveness, and a chance at a huge inheritance, comes denial. The four children, formerly perfect, the joy of their mother’s heart, are now hidden, trapped in an attic, waiting for an old man to die. As days slip into years their mother’s assurances, her proclamations of love, her promises of soon-to-be wealth and ease, slip into the grey dust of dissolution and eventually, death. This then is a growing up in the shadows, overruled by a cruel grandmother who intimates at the horrible secret of the children’s birth, their true inheritance.

child in an atticFlowers in the Attic combines an explosive story with the intense feelings of growing up and discovering sex at the same time as acknowledging a loss of parental love and the true worth of money. The story begins, with Cathy (aged 12) and her brother Christopher (older by several years) transitioning from a child-like abdication of responsibility into a pseudo-family as they take care of Cory and Carrie, the barely out of babyhood twins, attempting to transition the somber attic into a substitute for an outside world of sunshine and play, now locked away. While Christopher accepts his mother’s love openly, responsibly hoping and patiently waiting, Cathy suspects that the imprisonment is hardly temporary. As their mother gradually fades, growing ever more unable to see the signs of starvation and abuse, the tale transitions from one of greed into something darker. Forgotten, dying children, at the mercy of a grandmother who hates them fiercely, locked into a room papered with scenes of Biblical torment or shivering in an attic filled with faded paper flowers, grow into a sense of rebellion coupled with near-death hopelessness. But has too much time already passed? Is there an escape from the attic and if there is, do they truly want the full knowledge behind their imprisonment?

The tale, while unique, hardly begins auspiciously as Cathy often falls into idioms such as “golly lolly” and the like. Her elder brother, Christopher, is presented as worldly wise and yet the two are so far caricatured as to be unrealistic. They are both idyllic and simple in a sense that would better fit the young twins. Especially when re-reading as an adult, the stilted phrases and forced over abundant innocence diminishes the story’s impact and the children’s true scope of loss. This attempt to create the idealism and simplicity of youth results instead in staccato, melodramatic prose which oscillates from annoying into downright distracting.

wilted flowersAs the story continues, however, Andrews falls under the desolate spell of the attic, following Chris and Cathy as they slowly grow older and lose their innocence, the narrative picking up a more natural rhythm, a sense of place and horror with evocative potential. This is where the plot begins to accelerate and the grandmother, and even the mother, steadily reveal the secrets that undergird what was previously an idyllic suburban life, a family only happy on the exterior. Here, then, is where the novel comes into its own and earns its status as iconic fiction. For all the seeming simplicity of Andrews’ earlier writing, which still does pop up from time to time, Cathy and Chris’s story is one of complexity and layers, with clues echoing back from the beginning. Andrews certainly isn’t afraid to “go there” either, and no betrayal is too great or excluded from a story of growing desperation, the sadness of children locked away from sun and light and affection. This is where the sensationalism tied into Andrews’ name and her guilty pleasure style writing earns its true title, ranging from topics such as murder to incest, finally resulting in a reveal-all conclusion that is just as tear jerking as it is shocking. We, like Cathy, may see all the signs early, may have all the same suspicions, yet the true breadth of the scheme, the permanent falling away of a parent, and the unforgivable final action, culminate into something disturbing, a haunting finale that makes us question the love of families, the doting of motherhood, and the meaning behind sibling’s affection.

Flowers in the Attic, for its admitted writing flaws, is a story that once read can never be forgotten. Partly, it’s the sheer horror of what Andrews proposes, the depth of evil contained here combined with the fact that all of it is possible – something we can see appearing on a tragic news story. Chris and Cathy slowly grow together, a semblance of parents when they should still be children, and their emotions and the unholy tie that is formed is nevertheless sympathetic, almost inescapable. While, sequels and prequels galore follow, this is the original tale, the story we can’t forget with its images of young children, wan from lack of sunlight, surrounded by rich gifts, locked into a forgotten space, spinning like ballerinas and chasing each other through fake forests of flowers, hoping that they can someday be loved again.

        Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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