Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
"For I think of us more as flowers in the attic. Paper flowers. Born so brightly colored, and fading duller through all those long, grim, dreary, nightmarish days when we were held prisoners of hope, and kept captive by greed."
This is how the book begins....followed shortly by the narrator comparing herself humbly to Charles Dickens (sigh).
My mother would never let me read this book as a kid. Not only did she have a problem with the incest but also with its negative depictions of religious people. I remember seeing all of my friends carrying it around with them, hearing them talk about the books insanity and later recognizing it as one of the best selling "young adult" novels of all time as well as one of the most banned books in America. I knew vaguely what to expect even though my mother's warnings led me to avoid the book until now and having never seen the film adaptation...but I have to say that this book is kind of insane but in an absolutely amazing way. It is camp in its purest form, unselfconscious and overarticulated.
As the novel begins we are thrown into the world of the Dollanganger family, through Cathy's point of view. Her, her older brother Chris and their two twin siblings are somewhat affectionately referred to as the Dresden dolls by their neighbors, they have a charmed life and a loving family. When their dad dies in a car accident it all quickly unravels. Suddenly their mother's rich relatives are revealed, rich parents whose religious zealotry lead them to disown her after she married her half uncle (Cathy's dad). In a plot to win back her father's affection and her inheritance, mother conspires with grandmother to hide her children in the attic of their gigantic house until the grandfather dies.
What follows is the three years the siblings spend alone together in their room, fending off the hyper paranoid (but eventually right!) assumptions that Cathy and Chris are having an incestuous relationship, trying to stay strong in the face of their mother's indifference which grows at an almost comically exponential rate, recovering from physical and emotional abuse and caring for each other as their health deteriorates.
Overtly concerned with class and materialism, the central tension remains to be the desire for money versus the desire for freedom. Obviously the mother's need for material wealth causes her to completely abandon her children, but even Cathy and Chris at a certain point acknowledge the fact that they could leave for any moment but that their sacrifice would be for nothing unless they stuck it out to the end and claimed their inheritance. The cruel joke with which the novel ends crushes any remnants of this idea. Cathy becomes the foil for Andrews's own commentary, she repeats the primacy of individual freedom from the beginning, making her a target of everyone else's scorn.
Flowers in the Attic is almost a classical fairytale, adopting the gothic elements so familiar to us all. Like many of our most treasured fairytales, the absence of the father signifies the beginning of a dark time, a time usually controlled by a controlling, jealous female figure. Think Snow White, the Little Mermaid, Hansel and Gretel (somewhat), Cinderella etc. etc. Also, in keeping with the traditional fairytale trajectory the plot is primarily concerned with Cathy's transition from childhood to adulthood and her resulting sexuality (one of the more horrifying moments of the novel comes when the grandmother threatens to chop off her hair, a traditional symbol of female sensuality). Cathy is forced to grow up quickly and completely buys into the narrative that her growing up requires her entrance into motherhood. The incest between her and her brother comes up not only through their proximity but also through their mutual desire to replicate their lost family unit. Andrews loves fairy tales, gothic literature and Freud.
The quality of Andrews's prose hovers somewhere in between the shockingly simplistic, grammar addled Stephanie Meyers and the self indulgent melodrama of Charlaine Harris. (The dialogue is especially ludicrous.) It has that shlocky quality that fills in all the gaps for you, setting up the dominoes in order to knock them down at the exact moments we expect them. Everything that makes this book hilarious are the things that got it banned, and I think the assumption that this is a young adult novel comes only with the assumption that young adults can't read complicated writing. I have compared another book on this blog to candy, and felt similarly about this one - this is the literary equivalent to The Room.
Well, I mean, they made a film adaptation, which I'm sure is even more ridiculous in the film...although I hear it somewhat skirts the incest subject. THIS MOVIE LOOKS AMAZING.
This blogger does a really amazing detailed incredulous reading, much like the Twilight video guy.