Lately, I have been getting a reading kick in the classic VC Andrew books of late. Getting started in High School I was introduced through the book “If There Be Thorns” which is the third book in the Dollanganger Dolls series.
Some of VC Andrews books are under the category of Gothic Horror: With themes of forbidden love, family secrets/dramas, dreams being dashed or obtain, tragedy, death, and the more infamous of her themes: incestuous relationships.
The book Flowers in the Attic was the first story she wrote, and is one of her most famous ones, even a movie adaptation was made but it was heavily edited and received negative reception from fans of the book and movie critics. However, this started her writing career which she continued writing until her tragic death in 1986, where her books were still being written by ghost writer Andrew Neidermen to this day.
The Plot of the Story
The story revolves around four siblings: Chris, Cathy, Cory, and Carrie. Gradually pulling us into their private lives, it lures us in with the birth of twins Cory and Carrie in the beginning of the book. We’re introduced to their parents Christopher Sr and his wife Corrine as they live in Gladstone, Penn as the ideal picture-perfect beautiful family.
Nothing interesting of note happens until Chapter “Goodbye, Daddy” (the chapters are split into titles and not numbers so I will label them as such) where Corrine, the children, and their friends plan a birthday party for Christopher to celebrate his 30th birthday. Tragedy strikes the family when a police officer arrives to the house and delivers the heartbreaking news that Corrine’s husband had died in a fiery car accident.
Months after Christopher’s funeral, the family enters financial difficulty, Corrine explains they must live with their grandmother Olivia and grandfather Malcolm in a mansion called Foxsworth Hall on the condition that the children are not seen by the grandfather. This is when the book begins entering some of the more of the archetypes of the traditional gothic story, with the huge mansion sitting on a hill against a gray cloudy sky and its honeycomb passageways in which the Children are lead through up into a small bedroom where they are to be kept hidden away.
Right away, Grandmother Olivia is introduced. You find her character has the typical archetype of the “holier than thou” religious zealot who sees sin in everything. forbidding the brother and sisters from ever sharing a bed together for fear it would lead to incest. And she looks upon her own grandchildren as “the spawns of Satan”. She gives them the rules, which are to be quiet and not leave the room and to obey her.
Note: we do not see much from the grandfather Malcolm as a character, who is only talked about by Corrine, but he apparently is described as a force to be reckoned with while still clinging precariously to life in his old age. It is only until the last book “Garden of Shadows” that we learn more about him.
But we do find that her fears are not altogether based on paranoia, as they are grounded in a back story by Corrine that indeed her late husband was technically her half-uncle. The children get their first taste of their grandmother’s cruelty when the mother exposes the whipmarks on the back of her body.
It is there, where the reader familiarize themselves that the grandmother is the sole antagonist of this story. And she certainly does a good job at it: Threatening Cathy to cut her hair or they go without food, whipping them, treating them with such ill-contempt, and there is even suspicion later on in the book that the powdered donuts had been tainted with arsenic and the grandmother who serves the food would definitely be behind it. But whereas the grandmother has her own list of crimes, Corrine is not so innocent herself, as it is revealed at the end she had been poisoning them the whole time as to get rid of them completely so she would inherit the wealth left by her father.
Throughout the book Chris and Cathy become surrogate parents to Carrie and Cory who sadly don’t have much of a well-rounded character arc and are your typical little adorable ragamuffins.
The book enters its “juicier” stage by the time the two older siblings hit puberty. We start to see the mental and psychological side-effects of both of them being cooped up together within the room as both are entering into a sexual time at their life but without the assurance and education of both adult sexes to make the transition mentally healthy. In the chapter “My Stepfather” this is where the story takes its most controversial turn. In it, Cathy while sneaking out of the room to steal money that they would need to escape with, comes upon a man who turns out to be Corrine’s second husband, Bart Winslow, and confused with attraction kisses him. Chris overhears this on the second night of their money raiding and in a jealous rage forces himself on Cathy-his own sister. Although he is apologetic about the rape afterwards, Cathy admits that though she could have fought him off. She didn’t want to. Well talk about that later on.
Around the later chapters of the book, Cory gets so extremely ill that Cathy demands that despite the rule he is to be taken to a hospital, which Olivia and Corrine finally relent to, only to have the child end up dead sadly. However, it is from this death, the children resolve to finally escape the house and learn by feeding the same powdered donuts they consumed to Cory’s pet mouse that they were to learn that they were being poisoned not by the grandmother, but by their own mother. The story ends with Chris telling Cathy that they must make a decision, relieve the past by turning their mother into the police (and thus exposing their sexual moment together) or leave and start a new life. Cathy throws the dead mouse in the trash and they leave to start a new life together.
The Review and After-thoughts
The book is mostly Cathy’s tale told in her POV as she is confined with her brothers and sister within the small room, therefore are some aspects that rely on exposition from the mother or the grandmother to let us get an idea about some of the other characters that Cathy would not have been exposed to being imprisoned for a good number of years. Although books still must follow the same formulas as “show don’t tell” this I think works considering the situation the main female protagonist is in and her lack of contact from other people. The book starts off slow at first but it does set the characters and the main story up nicely focusing first on Chris and Cathy’s relationship as platonic brother and sister until we see it challenged and twisted from the abusive and isolated environment they are forced into. Their attempts to challenge the grandmother lead to some tense moments. As she does control their very survival denying or supplying them a source of food.
In a macabre twist of a family saga book, it does more to frighten you with the descriptions of how depraved human nature can be and the atrocities that would be enacted on young children by someone who should be associated as loving and kind in our society. But maybe even more shocking, is that the reader might even find some relateablity in it because it feels so realistic and emotional.
Now on the subject of the rape scene, a part in the book that has gotten it banned in certain areas. The aftermath, is probably the most though-provoking scenes ever written between the two characters. Chris wasn’t vilified nor Cathy made out to be the tragic heroine. In fact, Cathy showed no hate for her brother and even told him that “You didn’t rape me” even saying that she loved him. Yes, in any other story, this would be unnatural, but consider the circumstances in the book that they have been forced into, and the way their entire lives have been suddenly deviated from normal care-free children to trapped isolated “prisoners”. Their minds have now become warped as love between siblings and love between a man and a woman are one and the same. And Chris, basically had no other female interaction (or a positive one at least) with the exception of Cathy since he became disenchanted with their own mother. This changes later on in the next book, as they try to ignore their own intimate feelings that happened between them by entering into relationships with other people.
In conclusion, “Flowers in the Attic” is a gripping story that explores the open-minded exploration into family dysfunction and its dramas, and how it affects the emotional and psychological strain of young naive innocence. I would recommend this book to young readers who enjoy dark and twisted stories but are sick of the supernatural romances and want to try something different.