Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick reads 'Flowers In The Attic', the 1979 story of a brother and sister who keep it all in the family.
Truly, when I was very young, way back in the 'fifties, I believed all of life would be like one long and perfect summer day. After all, it did start out that way. About a decade ago, bouncing around a seaside bookstore with my best friend, I ascertained with increasing horror that she had somehow managed to plow through the field of YA literature from the 19th through the 20th century without seeding any V.C. Andrews. "You have to read this!" I said, shaking Flowers in the Attic at her frantically, disturbing the other Eileen Fisher-clad patrons. "Uh-huh," she said, turning over some Alan Shapiro to read the back. "No, really!" I pressed. It is a testament to her forbearance that, after she passed on buying the book and I insisted on buying it FOR her, she suffered me enough to open it and read the first page. At which point she immediately ceased to respond to all communications until she had reached the last one.What is it that makes V.C. Andrews, and particularly Flowers in the Attic, so compelling? The story of Cathy Dollenganger, nee Foxworth, and her siblings, Chris, Cory, and Carrie, Flowers in the Attic is the compelling story of a family's betrayal and heartbreak, love and revenge, apparently. (See above.) More precisely, it is the story of a blond, Dresden-doll family torn apart after the death of a father — and a mother who sacrifices her own children to get a massive inheritance she finds she loves more than her own flesh and blood. WHY do I not have a successful career as a flap-copy writer? Anyway, when we meet the Dollenganger clan, they are in the waning days of their picture-perfect life. Cathy, at 12, is an aspiring ballerina, while Chris, her older brother, is a brainy know-it-all who delights in tormenting her. (More on that later.) The young twins, Carrie and Cory, are not that interesting. (They are twins, etc.) And the parents, Christopher and Corrine, are possessed of a shattering beauty as well as in icky, overarching sensuality:
Our father was perfect. He stood six feed two, weighed 180 pounds, and his hair was thick and flaxen blond, and waved just enough to be perfect; his eyes were cerulean blue and sparkled with laughter...
Yada yada yada, await the yick:
His booming greeting rang out as soon as he put down his suitcase and briefcase. "Come greet me with kisses if you love me!"
Somewhere near the front door, my brother and I would be hiding, and after he'd called out his greeting, we'd dash out from behind a chair or the sofa to crash into his wide open arms, which seized us up at once and held us close, and he warmed our lips with his kisses. ....Love was a word lavished about in our home. "Do you love me? — For I most certainly love you; did you miss me? — Are you glad I'm home? — Did you think about me when I was gone? Every night? Did you toss and turn and wish I were behind you, holding you close? For if you didn't, Corrine, I might want to die."
BEST argument for fathers having to work such long hours in a coal mine they come home and start drinking in front of the T.V. immediately EVER. But Corrine, the mother — Cathy's model for womanity — is no better. Without any employment other than maintaining her beauty, she shows Cathy precisely how a woman grooms herself to maintain a husband's interest:
On Fridays, Momma spent half the day in the beauty parlour having her hair shampooed and set and her fingernails polished, and then she'sd come home to take a long bath in perfumed-oil water. I'd perch in her dressing-room, and watch her emerge in a filmy negligee. She's sit at her dressing-table to meticulously apply make-up. And I, so eager to learn, drank in everything she did to turn herself from just a pretty woman into a creature so ravishingly beautiful she didn't look real. The most amazing part of this was our father thought she DIDN'T wear makeup! He believed she was naturally a striking beauty.
Lying whore betrayer! Seriously, she is. You'll see. Because, after her husband's untimely death, she is shortly going to lock her children in the attic of her parents' estate — "...my parents are rich! Not middle-class rich, or upper-class rich! but very, very rich! Filthy, unbelievably, sinfully rich!" Wait, what are they? — in order to wile her way back into her father's good graces, which she fell out of after marrying her half-uncle and presumably bearing their Devil's Issue. (I hate it when that happens!) As Corrine brings the children to the enormous, grim estate, her stated plan to her four charges is as follows: they'll hang out for a few days until she prepares her father to meet them. Then they'll charm him with their blond perfection, he'll write them into the will, and everyone will be happy and blond. Or, she'll just charm him and he'll die, which is the preferred plan. What they haven't banked on is the grandmother who greets them:
Her nose was an eagle's beak, her shoulders were wide, and her mouth was like a thin, crooked knife slash. Her dress, a grey taffeta, had a diamond brooch at the throat on a high, severe neckline. Nothing about her appeared soft or yielding; even her bosom looked like twin hills of concrete.
Not only does this modern Miss Minchin have a bad attitude, she seems to have a bad view of the children: namely, that they are Devil's spawn. As she leads them through a long list of do's and don'ts that includes always brushing one's teeth, never opening the blinds and staring at the Bible to try to absorb the "purity of the Lord and his ways," the children begin to cotton on to the fact that something is amiss: "Eight: if I ever catch boys and girls using the bathroom at the same time, I will quite relentlessly, and without mercy, peel the skin from your backs." Okay first, who WANTS to use the bathroom with someone at the same time — to say nothing of using it with a BOY? But the senior Mrs. Foxworth will not be put off:
"They're only children," Momma flared back with unusual fire. 'Mother, you haven't changed one bit, have you? You still have a nasty, suspicious mind! Christopher and Cathy are innocent!" "Innocent?" she snapped back, her mean look so sharp it could cut and draw blood. "That is exactly what your father and I always presumed about you and your half-uncle!"
Shnap! Finding out you're your own first cousin...I HATE it when that happens! And thus begin a long series of days that stretch from two or three into, I don't know, FOUR YEARS, during which the children subsist on a daily diet of cold bacon, toast, jelly sandwiches, warm milk, and fried chicken; are almost forced to eat mice; make a paper garden in the attic and slowly grow thin and spindly along with the flowers they have placed in the wan sun. Corrine's response to this treatment is to continue to buy them more games and expensive clothing, and assure them that the father is about to die, and they are going to lose their investment if they rush things now: "Just have patience. Be understanding! And what fun you lose now, I'll make up to you later, a thousandfold!" This is all very well, except for how being locked alone in a room for four years, cast as the de facto parents of the twins, Cathy and Chris begin to have a shaky sense of their own roles as well:
Now the twins ran to me with their small cuts and bruises, and the splinters garnered from the rotten wood in the attic. I carefully plucked them out with tweezers. Chris would apply the antiseptic, and the adhesive plaster they both loved. An injured small figner was enough to demand cuddly-baby thing, and lullabies sung as I tucked them into bed, and kissed their faces, and tickled where laughter had to be freed. Their thin little arms wrapped tightly around my neck. I was loved, very loved, and needed.
I have always wondered if Andrews' continued use of the passive voice is what creates such an urgent air of mystery around her characters, as if whatever agents of activity afoot, unspecified, might not belong to the agents in question but to the the grim finger of fate. And they are completely without any control over their circumstances — not over the grandfather who won't die, the grandmother who won't stop beating them, or the mother who is showing up increasingly less often. Worst of all, however, is the problem arising that no one can control — Chris and Cathy's burgeoning sexuality:
I was coming alive, feeling things I hadn't felt before. Strange achings, longings. Wanting something, and not knowing what is was that woke m eup at night, pulsating, throbbing, excited, and knowing a man was there with me, doing something I wanted him to complete, and he never did...he never did....
Tell me about it, sister. But Cathy, who is the only child who is cynical enough to see that her mother has no intention of ever letting them out ("It was my way to turn over all that glittered and look for the tarnish") is unable to see her brother (sorry) coming:
We were not always modest in the bedroom, nor were we always fully dressed....none of us cared very much who saw what. We should have cared. We should have been careful. .... "It would help if you weren't so near, so unavailable."
Okay, Cathy. Just, whatever you do, don't sleep with your brother. Don't sleep with your bro—
He yelled out something like, "You're mine, Cathy! Mine! You'll always be mine! No matter who comes into your future, you'll always belong to me! I'll make you mine...tonight....now! I had the strong dancer's legs, he had the biceps and greater weight...and he had much more determination than I to use something hot, swollen and demanding, so much that it stole reasoning and sanity from him. And I loved him. I wanted what he wanted — if he wanted it that much, right or wrong. Somehow we wound up on that old mattress — that filthy, smelly stained mattress that must have known lovers long before this night. And that is where he took me, and forced in that swollen, rigid male sex part of him that had to be satisfied. It drove into my tight and resisting flesh which tore and bled.
Having personally written a book that takes place entirely in a few rooms of a palatial estate, I can confirm how impossible it is to attempt to maintain the reader's interest without lapsing into narrative Red Bulls like incest, beatings, poison, and disgusting lies. (My character had to be content with doing a lot of cleaning.) But the stifling scenes depicted in Flowers of the Attic — and all of Andrews — take soap opera to a new level. Cathy tells Chris:
Chris, soap opera people are like us — they seldom go outdoors. And when they do, we only hear about it, never see it. They loll about in living-rooms, bedrooms, sit in the kitches and sip coffee or stand up and drink Martinis — but never, never go outside before our eyes. And whenever something good happens, whenever they think they're finally going to be happy, some catastrophe comes along to dash their hopes.
But if a soap opera is opera in drag, V.C. Andrews is a drag queen, holding a scented hanky to her heaving bosom, standing in front of an Elvis preacher at a Las Vegas chapel on New Years Eve. No one ever turns — they spin around with their legs flashing through a thin negligee. There's face-cupping and bosom-clutching extraordinaire. Fists bleed. Bodies swell. Odors are left, things are returned tenfold! Innocent, Beave-like protestations — "I didn't mean to rape you, I swear to God!" "I just couldn't believe this fantastic tale of something he called 'nocturnal emissions!' — exist alongside cloying, too-close informations, glances at cleavage, sighs like, "Let me have all those swelling curves that men desire." If there were ever a book meant to be read aloud by Blanche Devereaux, this is it. Andrews writes like a non-native speaker who has done time in a jail where they only show 60s sitcoms and One Life to Live, and my small heart aches and blood runs from many small paper cuts as I read her, beating my small fists on the pages. • • • • • I was going to say welcome officially to the last column of the summer, but it looks like I have one more next week, which cheers me, since I have no idea what I've done the last three months, to say nothing of how they can be already PASSED. Anyway, I have a few announcements. A) AND FIRST AND FOREMOST, we have a TITLE FOR THE BOOK! I was going to announce it today, but I was worried it would overshadow Obama's VP text. Suffice it to say it will be coming up in a column soon. B) AND SECOND AND NEXTMOST, Fine Lines is looking for an intern who is interested in getting some publishing, marketing, publicity and editorial experience, i.e., doing boring things for me on an unpaid basis with an eye towards the glamorous life that surely approaches. Do you have a younger sister or brother or intern who might be interested? Are YOU a brother or sister who is interested? Terrific! Send me your resume and a cover letter with the words EVE HARRINGTON in the subject line. Competence valued above all. Moving right along to last week's Plotfinder, which was muy muy difficile! However, we did have a few — and commenter Bookish Bohemian (in the comments) beat FORMER Plotfinder winner Andria A. (in the inbox!) by like TWELVE MINUTES to come in with the correct answer, which was Doris Orgel's A Certain Magic. I have asked the Serbs if they want to challenge the win and they have declined. Congrats, Ms. Bookish! It's always nice to live up to one's handle. Please email me your column request to email@example.com, and it will be redeemed. For this week's Plotfinder, which comes in from Suzan L., and which I post as I prepare to depart for an east coast-y vacation town: Some boy, possibly with dark hair, gets trapped, (left behind?) in the aftermath of a flood (hurricane?) on what I perceive to be an east coast-y sort of vacation town (Cape Cod? Nantucket?). After being left/trapped/abandoned/transported to an alternate universe/whatever he happens upon a (possibly more than one) baby duck whose mother has succumbed to the flood/hurricane/whatever and the baby duck imprints on him. At some point in the survival drama he eats hot dogs and a whole box of brownie mix just mixed up with water into a powerbar kinda paste. There is also an early scene (pre-event, possibly involving an unsavory, younger sibling) in the backseat of a station wagon. The cover may have been light green. Note that MAY have, readers, and don't be locked into preconceptions. Mail your correct answers to firstname.lastname@example.org, or put them in the comments. First correct answer wins a column request. Have you heard? There is going to be a book borne of this column, bosom-heaving, face-cupping Devil Spawn!!! Would you like to know who sleeps together and who dies? Duh. If so, send an email to email@example.com with DEVIL SPAWN!!! in the subject line, and I will put you on it. (Aspiring interns, helping me set up some kind of one-click feature to handle this will be first on the list.) Book club members and people who want to be in the know! Next week, we have: Bridge to Terabithia Followed by: Sister of the Bride Followed by....???? Suggestions for the next round of books welcome, as well as any notes of censure, praise or despair, to firstname.lastname@example.org. I read them all, I bring them warm milk and fried chicken, and I make sure they never go to the bathroom together. Flowers The Attic Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag] Earlier: A Little Princess: A Reversal Of Four Buns • Tiger Eyes: Cuando Los Lagartijos Corren •Homecoming: A Dicey Prospect • Go Ask Alice: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
• The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase: Life's A Bitch And So Is The Governess
•Stranger With My Face: Stop Projecting
•Happy Endings Are All Alike: The Price Of Fault
•The Pigman: A Day No Friends Would Die
•Julie Of The Wolves: The Call Of The Wild
• Deenie: Brace Yourself
•A Wrinkle In Time: Quit Tesseracting Up
•Love Is One Of The Choices: No, Not That 'Sex And The City'
•The Girl With The Silver Eyes: Little Pitchers Have Big Pharma
•Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself: Springtime For Hitler, Part II
•Summer Of My German Soldier: Springtime For Hitler, Part I
•From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: City Of Angels
•A Gift Of Magic: Totally Psyched
•Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan
•The Secret Garden: Still No Idea What A Missel Thrush Is
•To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie: No Telephone To Child Services
•The Westing Game: Partners In Crime
• The Moon By Night: Travels With Vicky
•My Sweet Audrina: The Book Of Sister And Forgetting
•The Long Secret: CSI: Puberty
•The Cat Ate My Gymsuit: A Pocket Full Of Orange Pits
•The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
•Are You In The House Alone? One Out Of Four, Maybe More
•Jacob Have I Loved: Oh, Who Am I Kidding, I Reread This Book Once A Week
• Then Again, Maybe I Won't: Close Your Eyes, And Think Of Jersey City
•My Darling, My Hamburger: I Will Gladly Pay You Tomorrow For A D&C Today
•All-Of-A-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtinkiners Would Farshteyn
•Island Of The Blue Dolphins: I'm A Cormorant And I Don't Care
•Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
•The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die