When I was 11, I read Flowers in the Attic for the first time. It was a Very Big Deal among my friends who loved reading, especially reading books our parents didn’t want us to read. I can’t recall the name of the girl who slipped it in my desk but I vividly remember the note that came with it: "SHE HAS SEX WITH HER BROTHER, GROSS" in bubbly 5th grade handwriting, with BROTHER underlined twice, and a frowny face at the bottom.
With an endorsement like that, how could I not read it? I took it home with me and read page after page of flowery prose under my heart-print blankets. I was enthralled by this twisted Gothic fairy tale of four beautiful orphaned children locked in an attic by an evil witch. I fell in love with Chris and Cathy falling in love, even though they were siblings. I was heartbroken when Cory died, horrified by their mother and jubilant at their escape.
Yes. There is a LOT that goes on in these pages. But I’ll try my very best to sum up:
Four kids. Mother and Father. Father dies, Mother reveals she has a super rich family but she’s been disinherited due to a Bad Thing she did in her youth. Turns out that Bad Thing was marrying her half-uncle and having what the children's’ grandmother so thoughtfully and creepily refers to as “Devil's Issue.” Still, Mom is convinced she can suck up to her dying father in enough time for him to put her back into the will, and then he’ll croak and life will be trips to Paris and mink coats for all.
However, since the kids are the product of an unholy incestuous marriage, they’re forced to stay in a small room that opens into the attic until their grandfather dies. Otherwise he’d be all NOPE and all of his money would I guess just be distributed to the poor or something charitable. The mom swears up and down that the grandfather is super sick and is going to die like ANY SECOND NOW.
But you know how sometimes you order a pizza and they tell you it will be there in like 15 minutes and then before you know it, it’s been 45 minutes and you’re like, “Hey, wait a minute, where’s my pizza?” That’s pretty much how these kids felt, because they ended up trapped in their attic for 4 years. Cathy and Chris are forced to go through puberty around each other, and also serve as makeshift parents for their younger siblings.
The grandmother is insane, though to be fair, I think she has a pretty good reason to be concerned about incest, considering her daughter married her half-uncle. But the grandmother does loads of terrible things, like starving the children and beating them and threatening them.
One time, she sees Chris admiring Cathy’s naked body and flips her shit, demanding Cathy cut her locks of golden hair because she’s too vain. When Cathy refuses, the grandmother pours HOT TAR all over Cathy’s hair. Chris MacGuyvers it out, but then the grandmother starves them to the point where Chris feeds the twins his own blood and forces Cathy to eat raw rat meat.
Their mother gets remarried to a Richie Rich and promptly forgets all about her precious children from her first marriage. You know how that goes, though, like how when you’re in a relationship and you two have your favorite Greek restaurant where you guys hold hands and feed each other slabs of gyro meat? But then you guys break up and you’re like uhhh, I don’t know what Greek restaurant you’re talking about, this Korean restaurant is my jam.
This is about the time Cathy and Chris decide they’ve had enough of everyone’s shit and make plans to get the fuck out of this crazy house of crazy. But then a lot of things happen very quickly: they make a copy of the key, they steal things from their mom’s room to pad their Escape Fund, Cathy sleep-kisses her mom’s husband, Chris finds out, and then Chris makes declarations about how Cathy is HIS and NOBODY ELSE’S and then he rapes her in the attic.
This is what everybody remembers when you ask them about Flowers in the Attic. You bring it up in casual conversation, you know, like you do, and the first thing that comes up is the incest rape. It’s a tough scene to get through, and while some of the prose is a bit heavy-handed (the “swollen, rigid male sex part of him”), you can almost feel the fear, the guilt and the regret seep out of the pages.
11-year-old me was like YEAHHH THEY’RE DOIN' IT but 30-year-old me realizes it’s not a sexy scene in the slightest - it’s incredibly sad. Cathy is so confused by her feelings toward her brother, and her brother is so confused by his feelings toward her. They both know that what they’re feeling is TOTALLY wrong but they can’t help it.
I’ve never had sex with my brother, but I have had sex that I knew I shouldn’t; the guilt and regret takes over immediately afterward. And poor Cathy also feels like it’s partially her fault: “I shouldn’t have worn skimpy little see-through garments around a brother who had all a man’s strong physical needs.”
Luckily things lighten up after that. Nah, just kidding. One of their younger siblings dies of what they think is pneumonia but turns out it’s arsenic poisoning. The kids had been receiving powdered sugar doughnuts in their food basket for 9 months and they thought it was their grandmother trying to be nice to them but NOPE it was actually their mom trying to poison them. Because see, their grandfather died 9 months ago too but his will said if there was EVER any evidence of children from her first marriage, then all the money she inherited would be taken back.
The three remaining children flee and vow to take revenge on their evil mother and grandmother. And there are like 4 more books in the series so I’m assuming they did.
I used to be 100 percent horrified by the mother, but now also feel sorry for her. She views her children as roadblocks to her wealth, and she has neither the willpower nor the strength to live her life on her own. When she fully abandons her children to die by powdered-sugar doughnut (aka the number one way I want to die), she no longer cares about her first love, a love that she once considered great enough to allow the ties to her wealth to be cut. In the end, it turns out her love of money was greater than anything, and she ends up cutting the ties to her children.
You have to applaud VC Andrews for spinning this web of crazy. Her exaggerated prose is out of control at times, but it only adds to the overall absurdity of the plot. During my reread, even though I knew what happened at the end, I still felt this sense of urgency to see Cathy and Chris through their ordeal - my eyes raced through pages of swelling bosoms and golden hair, of bloody forearms and delicate paper flowers, of lingering glances, of confusion, betrayal and eventually, in multiple forms, release.
The morning after I finished the book, I went to work and a very nice coworker had brought in a box of doughnuts covered in powdered sugar. I couldn’t bring myself to eat one.
VC Andrews, you owe me a doughnut.