In 1979, Cleo Virginia Andrews (known as V.C. to her fans) published one of the trashiest books in the trashy paperback canon. Andrews, who was both named Virginia and from Virginia, bestowed upon the jaded world a gothic tale of imprisonment, abuse, southern-fried religious fanaticism, and, of course, incest that continues to shock readers to this day.
For those who didn’t sneak their mother’s copy of Flowers in the Attic off the nightstand to consume in breathless gulps, a quick run-down of the plot. The year is the 1950s. Just, generally, the 1950s. Betty Draper prototype Corrine Dollanganger loses her husband, Christopher, in an unintentionally hilarious car accident on the night of his birthday party. Since it’s the 1950s and she is but a helpless housewife, Corrine decides the only way to cope is to not to get a job but to flee her increasingly impatient debt collectors in the dead of night with her four children: 14-year-old Christopher Jr., preschool-age
brats twins Carrie and Cory, and our narrator, 12-year-old Cathy.
With the help of her batshit crazy mother, Corrine sneaks the kids into her parents’ luxe mansion deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of (surprise!) Virginia. The whippersnappers are informed that they will have to remain incognito in a small bedroom in a forgotten wing of the house until their mother can win the forgiveness and inheritance of her dad, who disowned her for marrying her half-uncle, Christopher Sr. (still dead; dead several times over, in fact, thanks to multiple automotive pratfalls that dark and stormy night of his birthday). She estimates it won’t take but a day or two.
That day or two stretches into weeks. Then months. Then years. In the interim, the four kids are variously neglected, beaten, starved, tarred (but not feathered), poisoned, and driven to incest before making their escape. They also hang out in the titular attic, which they access via a closet in their tiny room.
In a book designed to titillate and scandalize readers, it should be difficult to pin down the single most disturbing aspect of the story. But it’s not! Gear up, let’s dive right in.
The most obvious contender is the incest subplot that every 80s preteen seemed to know about in that remote era before social media, even without reading the book. However, in this 411-page paperback, the two-part plot twist barely takes up more space than that devoted to the explanation of the convoluted way Mr. Dollanganger met his end on the highway. We get a reveal of the niece-uncle marriage shortly after the inciting incident (dad’s demise), then it’s years before young Christopher takes it into his head to rape sister Cathy in a brief but unnecessarily graphic passage on page 356.
More troubling is the way Andrews — from all appearances without realizing it — subverted the details of Anne Frank’s years-long concealment in an attic, turning it from a true story of courage into a tawdry tale. The religious fanaticism and brutality of the children’s grandmother mirrors that of the gestapo. The even crueler, yet always unseen, grandfather parallels Hitler. And death, the unknowable but all-powerful force that can eradicate the grandfather and liberate the kids, is a stand-in for the Allied Forces.
But neither the incest nor the distasteful sleazification of the storyline of The Diary of Anne Frank is the most disturbing thing about Flowers in the Attic. That dishonor belongs to the dialogue.
The dialogue is horrendous.
Keeping in mind that, prior to their concealment, the juvenile characters in the story grew up in a regular town in Pennsylvania in the 1950s, it’s ghastly to observe them spout such gems as:
“Cathy, you’re twelve, and it’s time you grew up. Nobody screams to see a few bookworms. Bugs are a part of life. We humans are the masters, the supreme rulers over all.”
“A snail is a member of the molluse family, which have soft bodies without any backbones — and those things are called antennae, which are connected to its brain; it has tubular intestines that end with its mouth, and it moves by a gear-edged foot.”
“Why is it all men think everything a woman writes is trivial or trashy — or just plain silly drivel? Don’t men have romantic notions? Don’t men dream of finding the perfect love?”
“Oh, Christopher Doll, you have the most expressive blue eyes. When we are free of this place, and out in the world, I pity all the girls who are going to fall for you. Most especially I’ll feel sorry for your wife, with such a handsome husband to charm all his beautiful patients into wanting affairs. And if I were your wife, I’d kill you if you even had one extramarital affair!”
Nope. Nah-uh. Kids don’t talk like that. This stilted, strangely mannered, run-on dialogue could have worked if Andrews had introduced it later in the story, after the children had been locked away from the outside world with nothing but antebellum books from the attic to give structure to their speech and nobody but each other to talk to for years on end. But these tykes prattle on like this from the get-go, and they continue unchecked until the end of the book — even after they have been given access to a television set.
And it’s not just the kids. All of the characters in the book talk this way.
“Come greet me with kisses if you love me! … Did you toss and turn and wish I were beside you, holding you close? For if you didn’t, Corrine, I might want to die.”
“Oh, but you are heartless and ungrateful children, that you should do this to me, your own mother, the only person in this world who loves you! The only one who cares about you! I came so joyfully to you, so happy to be with you again, wanting to tell you my good news so you could rejoice with me. And what do you do? You attack me viciously, unjustly!”
“Sinners! You think you look pretty? You think those new young curves are attractive? You like that long, golden hair that you brush and brush and curl?”
Somehow, it’s less troublesome coming from the mouths of Corrine and her mother, since both hail from a highly formal, wealthy, and emotionally constrained environment. But Daddy Dearest grew up in relative poverty in Richmond, a city with a population of nearly 200,000 during his youth, not some backwards hill country.
Given the evidence, we must conclude that this is how Andrews herself spoke, and one can only shudder at what a casual chat over coffee with her must have been like.