Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer/reviewer/blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'My Sweet Audrina', V.C. Andrews' X-rated, 1982 gothic horror novel in which Audrina Adare, an innocent, is Desperately Seeking Sister.
There was something strange about the house where I grew up.
For a three-month span in my early twenties, when I was under the profound misimpression I was an appropriate candidate for a PhD in English literature, I was obsessed with writing a paper on the narrative conceit of what, in a sort of pertinent Q.E.D., I went around calling "The Man You Seek is Yourself." The most obvious example of my pet trope is Oedipus, who is so busy killing his father and sleeping with his mother he doesn't realize he is killing his father and sleeping with his mother, but you see it in mysteries everywhere, from Mary Higgins Clark's Where Are the Children to No Way Out, a.k.a. Last Decent Costner. While reading most mysteries feels like having a scatter of jigsaw pieces suddenly fuse into a picture with a satisfying click, the TMYSIY™ theme is closer to trying to locate, with increasing irritation, the weird corner piece with some blue cloud stuff in one corner and half the villager's hat along the edge, then realizing you've been holding it in your hands the whole time.
SO. Although I would like to attribute my obsession TMYSIY™ with my youthful perusals of Sophocles and attendant ancients, upon rereading the work in question, I must now conclude my obsession with the theory originated with My Sweet Audrina.
For those of you unfamiliar with V.C. Andrews' oeuvre (and pity you, poor souls!), she can best be described as the occultress of the way-too-familiar family, which, in her world, is a cloying blind, a knot of secrets in which sensual spills over into the actionable in fairly short order. Instead of pedestrian pancake-slicing, in an Andrews creation, breasts jiggle ominously, bottoms are spanked until they are duly red, and flat chests grow into buds grow into full, swollen breasts against which men of all ages are helpless, especially if they are genetically linked to the breasts in question.
The Andrews heroine with whom most of you are likely familiar, is, of course, Cathy of Flowers in the Attic's Dollenganger clan, a sister so unfortunate as to be locked up with her brother long enough to imprint herself on his pre-pubescent psyche, thus ruining him for other women forever. On a purely Best-in-Waitingroom level, I have always favored Heaven of the Casteel clan, pure "hill trash" whose violet eyes and teeny waist propel her firmly out of Appalachia. But Audrina, the 9-year-old with a Swiss-cheese memory, "prismlike", "chameleon" hair and, uh, violet eyes, always seemed the youthful template for these creations, a standalone whose story could be taken as a long exercise in how to write a 400-page book in which 90% of the events occur in one house.
When we meet Audrina Whitefern Adare, she is a lonely child living in the shadow of her older sister, who has died in apparently horrendous but unknown circumstances. With her in the huge, rambling mausoleum referenced above is her Papa, a rakish tycoon, her mother, the beautiful Lucky, her dour aunt Ellsbeth, and Ellsbeth's daughter, Vera, a venomous slattern who is BAD NEWS BEARS for all involved.
Audrina is tortured by the fact that she has no memories of any of her childhood, and cannot keep track of time, finding that months have passed when she thinks only a week has gone by. Vera, of course, gives her hell about this, and also about the fact that Audrina is the great favorite of the household, while her own mother can barely tolerate her, to say nothing of the uncle and aunt upon whom they both depend. Audrina is also somewhat rattled by the fact that her father is given to locking her in her dead sister's room and making her rock in her dead sister's chair, apparently to access some special "gift", although Audrina only sees visions of being horribly ravished and left for dead under a "golden raintree", which sounds kind of like some eco-friendly detergent but is apparently not.
Into this mix soon come Audrina's love interest, Arden — yup, he's named "Arden" — as well as Arden's mother, Billie, a legless former skating champion who is shockingly beautiful with skin like porcelain. (In Andrews-land, all are preternaturally beautiful until you find their secret flaw: for Audrina, the aforementioned memory loss; Vera, bones so fragile they break is she falls; Lucky, a heart condition; and Sylvia, Audrina's retarded little sister, who is the cause of Lucky's dying in childbirth. Even Arden—so dedicated to Audrina he acquires a symbolic name to keep it at the top of your mind!—will turn out to be not what he seems.)
But in between finding out the grand mystery at the center of the novel, there's a lot of positively filthy stuff to keep you alert. Here's Papa castigating Lucky for her behavior at a dinner party he forces her to have in her sixth month of pregnancy:
"You flirted, Lucietta. Flirted and in your condition, too. You cuddled so close to the teenage piano player on the bench you seemed blended into one person. You jiggled! Your nipples could be seen."
Gotta love that passive! This is followed, of course, by a whipping in bed Audrina sees through the keywhole, which she eventually decides is the cause of Sylvia's condition. Alongside the memory of her sister's rape, the following scene in which Vera describes losing her virginity completes Audrina's sexual education:
"I have seen a naked man, Audrina, a real one, not just a picture or an illustration. He is so hairy. You'd never suspect just how hairy by looking at him fully clothed. His hair travels from his chest down past his navel and runs into a point and keeps going and getting busher until—"
"Stop! I don't want to hear more."
"But I want you to hear more. I want you to know what you're missing. It's wonderful to have all those nine inches stabbing into me. Did you hear me, Audrina? I measured it...almost nine inches, and it's swollen and hard."
Jesus Christ, this book was dirty! But in Andrews, the passages about sex are meted out with a strange primness, as in the scene where Arden's mother Bill winds up in bed with Papa:
"They were in their underclothes, Arden's legless mother and my father, playing intimately with each other."
Jeez, you'd think by the time you socked the legless lady in bed with the dad, you could rock out with something more indelicate than "playing intimately with each other." (Maybe like "great gun cocked and aimed...", another Vera contribution.) It still, however, breaks up the myriad scenes in which characters simply hurl backstory at each other like so many brickbats:
"Ellsbeth," shrieked Momma after some insult about the house she loved, "the problem with you is you're so damn jealous our father loved me better. You sit there and say ugly things about the house because you wish to God it belonged to you. Just as you cry your heart out each night, sleeping alone in your bed, or lying there restless and awake, jealous again because I always got what you wanted—when you could have had what I have if you'd kept your damned big mouth shut!"
"And you certainly know when to open your big mouth, Lucietta!" barked my aunt. "All your life wandering through this mausoleum and gushing about its beauty. Of course our father left this house to you and not to me. You made me want to vomit you were so sweet. You set out to rob me of everything I wanted. Even when my boyfriends came to call on me, you were there smiling and flirting. You even flirted with our father, flattering him so much you made me seem cold and indifferent. But I did all the work around here, and I still do! You prepare meals and you think that's enough. Well, it's not enough! I do everything else. I'm sick and tired of being everybody's slave! And if that's not enough, you're teaching your daughter your tricks!"
Well! There'll be a quiz on all this tomorrow. But rather than spoil all this for you, I'll simply defend Andrews' use of the purple — as well as our enthrallment to it — by saying that, as over the top as she was about it, Andrews depicted the internal experience of pubescence for girls with stunning precision: the dangerous, teeming sexuality implied in the smallest touch, and the knowledge that you are flying blind in a world where everyone knows more about who you've been and who you're becoming than you.
Oh, also: AUDRINA REALLY IS THE FIRST AUDRINA, AND HER FATHER MADE HER BELIEVE SHE WAS HER OWN SISTER AFTER SHE WAS GANG-RAPED.
AND: Vera turns out to be Papa's OTHER daughter by aunt Ellsbeth, has a big old affair with Arden, and, though Sylvia is suspected, is revealed to be the murderer of her own mother and Arden's mother Billie, whom she pushes down the stairs.
ALSO: Turns out Vera TOTALLY set those boys on the original Audrina to rape her all those years ago, because she was way jealous about the Papa thing.
Whatever! You know you were just going to reread it for all the "swollen breast buds" parts, anyway.
Earlier:The Long Secret: CSI: Puberty
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