Planting Flowers with V.C. Andrews
August 19, 2013 9:13 AM   Subscribe

For many North American women of a certain age, sneak-reading a copy of V.C. Andrews’ bestselling novel Flowers in the Attic was a teen rite of passage. The story of four siblings locked in an attic by their mother (and guarded by their cruel grandmother) made for strangely compelling gothic titillation. On August 12, The Toast celebrated V.C. Andrews Day by publishing editor Ann Patty's account of how she came to acquire the manuscript in 1978 and form a relationship with the reclusive author.

Other features: an interview with Patty by YA author Robin Wasserman; a reflection by Madeleine Lloyd-Davies on V.C. Andrews’ treatment of disability in her novels (especially My Sweet Audrina); and a query from Nicole Cliffe about the future of illicit reading.

Interestingly, one of the other notable debuts Ann Patty acquired and edited is George R.R. Martin's Fevre Dream.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (33 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I was fascinated to learn that the V.C. Andrews name has appeared on nearly 80 books, no more than 10 of which Cleo Virginia Andrews actually had any part in writing. Her estate hired Andrew Neiderman to finish up two of her remaining works upon her death (but there's even some controversy over whether he actually wrote them entirely), and then he finished her second pentalogy, and then he just... kept... writing.
posted by Etrigan at 9:22 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Needs an "incest" tag.

I posted this in another thread, but it works here too:

V.C. Andrews and Lovecraft: A Love Story
posted by emjaybee at 10:00 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I remember reading it after seeing the movie in college (book is much better) and thinking, not too bad for what it is. Then I read the four sequels and thought, huh? Some focus and an editor, please?
posted by Melismata at 10:43 AM on August 19, 2013

I am definitely one of the generation described in the first sentence. Also notable this week: Kiernan Shipka will play Cathy Dollanganger in the upcoming Lifetime version of the movie. Hopefully it's better than that Kristy Swanson version, and it's not like we didn't know Shipka was into the subversive stuff but still...shudder.
posted by kickingthecrap at 11:00 AM on August 19, 2013

When I was in middle school, we extended our VC Andrews fandom to her ghostwriter, Andrew Neiderman -- we all passed around a battered copy of Sister, Sister, which warned us about the dangers of conjoined twins who can kill you with their brains. It's sort of impressive that he made Flowers in the Attic seem classy by comparison.
posted by asperity at 11:46 AM on August 19, 2013

In I think fifth grade one of the kids in my class started reading the series, courtesy of the Wednesday visits of the Bookmobile -- which were liberatingly parent-free! Over the next year, most of us made it through the series, or at least read the first couple of books.

I can't imagine what the people at the St. Paul Central (downtown) Library made of the circulation figures. :7) Our teacher just figured we were all nerds, and smiled indulgently. I miss that lady!
posted by wenestvedt at 11:52 AM on August 19, 2013

Somehow Flowers in the Attic and sequels made it past the nuns at the convent school I went to in Ireland and into the library. I don't think it was taken out of the library very often but it - like Judy Blume's Forever - opened very easily at certain parts and was much discussed in hushed tones in the playground.
posted by halcyonday at 11:52 AM on August 19, 2013

Also, the review under the "sneak-read" link is pretty funny:
As an example of horror or erotica, the book is neither particularly frightening nor erotic. It's basically the sexy nurse Halloween costume of books, and the girl in it is wearing adult braces. And is your sister.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:58 AM on August 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

Fantastic FPP! So many wonderful things in the links -- Andrews actually served powdered doughnuts to her editor?! And: "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: "It was adapted for the screen in 1987 in a film that glossed over the incest part, which is sort of like making Jurassic Park into a film about a friendly lizard named Butternut."
posted by asperity at 12:22 PM on August 19, 2013 [11 favorites]

My grandmother gave me -- at about 12 -- a copy of Flowers in the Attic. I mentioned this in her eulogy, but no one seemed to get it.
posted by jeather at 12:42 PM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Just to say: i remember EVERYBODY reading these. I think the brothers and sisters have sex or something. And arguing over who was sexier, Duran Duran or Wham! (sic). I was the only girl who took no part in all of this and stuck to Dostoyefsky. If i'd known it would mean i'd never have children because i wouldn't get round to having a sex life, i would've forced myself to put down the books and talk about boys and makeup! Young people, what takes you back, when you're old, is something you haven't thought about in years or heard mentioned, yet was everywhere at the time - this fits the bill! Thanks.
posted by maiamaia at 12:55 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ah, good times! I read this in junior high school, so when I was...eleven or twelve, maybe? Bizarrely enough, I was more distracted by Cathy's ability to have a ballet career in the sequel--because, apparently, it's possible to successfully train yourself to be a ballet dancer while trapped in an attic--than by the incestuous sex.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:04 PM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

This is hilarious, thanks! Last year I read Flowers in the Attic for the first time. As a grown-ass adult, I have to say... it was not very good. The pacing of the book is glacial, and the incest was less titillating than nauseating.

Honestly though I was more horrified by the book's not-so-subtle pro-anorexia message. And at the end, her eating disorder literally saves the life of the narrator/protagonist.

Kids, don't read Flowers in the Attic. Stick with Judy Blume's Forever instead.
posted by ErikaB at 1:15 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I stumbled across that book in my high-school library! I took it off the shelf, opened it up, sat down in the aisle and read most of it right there. It was totally magnetic, and the feeling I had afterward was the precise equivalent of the stomach-feeling that would follow eating a mixing bowl of frosting -- I just wanted to vomit it up mentally. I've never had that reaction to a book before or since.

I cam across the movie on TV a few years later, and while it leaves a lot of stuff out, it really captures the decadent, shamefully id-fulfilling feeling of the book. It was really a proto-Twilight, I think.
posted by ostro at 1:20 PM on August 19, 2013

Oh my god the article is a treasure.
"The emotion is called blorfing, and it's where you are really bored but also kind of want to throw up enthusiastically. Like unsexy porn or when the people on Bones kiss."
posted by ErikaB at 1:23 PM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I remember reading this in my early teens. I overheard the young librarian at our local library telling my mother that large groups of kids were reading Flowers in the Attic and how inappropriate it was for that age group. I nearly broke my fingers thumbing through the card catalog trying to find a copy. I checked it out a few weeks later and hid the thick paperback book underneath several more innocuous books and kept it under wraps in my room. I devoured the book and couldn't wait to read the sequels. Luckily, I had a friend whose mother had all of the copies and she just passed them to me when my parents weren't home.

My aunt caught me reading My Sweet Audrina several years later on a family vacation and suggested that I shouldn't be reading it because it was far too mature for me. She also promised not to tell my parents what I was reading.
posted by BrianJ at 1:26 PM on August 19, 2013

This has got me thinking that, as much as I love my Kindle, you can't hold an e-book gently by the spine and let it fall open to The Good Bits, the way you can with a used copy of Clan of the Cave Bear or Forever.
posted by ErikaB at 1:33 PM on August 19, 2013 [23 favorites]

I somehow skipped this entirely, which is bizarre considering as how I read everything that wasn't nailed down...I seem to have gone directly from Harriet the Spy to Jane Eyre.
posted by pxe2000 at 1:39 PM on August 19, 2013

There was a girl in my Grade 7 class who passed around all of these good books, including Flower in the Attic and Clan of the Cave Bear, but also the Carpetbaggers and "Forever", by Judy Blum. And Sophie's Choice.

Many of the books featured highly descriptive blowjobs as a common theme...
posted by KokuRyu at 2:12 PM on August 19, 2013

Heh, when I posted this I was really hoping there were other MeFites who had also done the "pass the book around and whisper about The Naughty Bits" with school friends. What the heck was it about these books?? Whenever I get huffy about the awful anti-feminist messages in Twilight I have to remember these books with their terrible messages about body image (yes, totally the pro-anorexia stuff, ErikaB!) and the incest and rape and seriously weird shit. And yet despite this (perhaps because of it?) they were like crack for us 12 and 13 year old girls. I wonder if kids still read these or if they've been totally supplanted by Twilight.

I thought this account of a first encounter with Flowers in the Attic was quite sweet:
I think it was between seventh and eighth grade–I was rummaging through the cartons of [garage sale] books out front of one house when I came across Flowers. It was the old one with the classic keyhole cover, and something about those pale kids’ terrified faces struck me. I’d barely even been able to finish Christopher Pike books, but something told me I was ready for something really scary.

It should be said at this point that I grew up in a fairly wholesome household and my working understanding of sex was vague at best. I made it about two-thirds of the way through the book, finding myself alternately fascinated and absolutely horrified, before I knocked on my parents’ door, thrust the book into my mother’s hands and said, ‘I don’t think I’m supposed to be reading this yet,’ and went back to being twelve for a while.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:49 PM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I remember my (much older) cousin telling my mom about this book, and just being horrified and intrigued by his description. I was 9. A few years after that, the girls at school started talking about it, and somehow I ended up being the only boy who read it. (I was the only boy who read Judy Blume, too. Or, you know, maybe just the only boy who admitted it.)

Anyway, Flowers in the Attic was absolutely bizarre, engrossing, disgusting, amazing and best of all: forbidden. This was *clearly* an adult book, from my pre-teen POV.

I think I only read the first two, and don't remember much, except at some point, the cycle sort of starts over, doesn't it? Doesn't the next generation get hidden away for money, too? Someone remind me.

For those who went straight from children's books to actual adult literature: you missed out. There is a lifetime of adulthood to read true literature, but there's a limited window of time for something like Flowers in the Attic to tickle your fancy.
posted by MoxieProxy at 3:51 PM on August 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

Ha! I started with Judith Krantz's Scruples when I was 11. By the time I got to V.C. Andrews at 12, I'd already been through Krantz, Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon, and I'd read Peyton Place along with all the mature Judy Blume I could get my hands on. For a while after reading Wifey, I was terrified of the potential of ending up married to a man whose head was shaped like a potato and who would just grunt away and then roll over and fall asleep when he was finished.

Andrews' work was nowhere near glamorous enough for me, and compared to Blume, she was a terrible writer with no feel for real emotions at all, whereas I felt as if Judy Blume understood the little things and moments that make a up a life - and how those little bits would turn out to be really important later on, not only in her stories, but for real!

I read Flowers, but haven't read the rest of that series or any other. I'm not surprised that once she died, there was a Carolyn Keane-ish continuation. The next "dirty books" I read were Clan of the Cave Bear and The Valley of Horses. Pg 748, if I recall correctly, of the paperback of Valley was pretty much torn out of my copy by boys and girls passing it around on the sly in my 9th grade algebra class.
posted by droplet at 5:34 PM on August 19, 2013

after reading Wifey

OMG, I just flashed back to the guy on the motorcycle (who turned out to be the SPOILER). That scene gave me an erection; the very idea that someone would masturbate in public and in view of someone else! Dear god!!!!
posted by MoxieProxy at 5:53 PM on August 19, 2013

In the 70s, everything was a variation of finding an issue of Oui in the woods. Sex seemed like something only crazy people did.

I can't imagine what it's like for kids nowadays.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:19 PM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

Flowers in the Attic came out while I was in junior high. I had already read Jane Eyre and all the Lois Duncan I could get my hands on, so I was dying to read this. Somehow I got a copy for my birthday (I don't think I ever got rid of it, so it may still be at my mom's house), and I know I read all the terrible sequels. None of the other books ever caught my interest, though.
posted by mogget at 9:30 PM on August 19, 2013

Oh man! This really takes me back. In 1988 or so, I checked out the VHS tape of the Flowers in the Attic movie from the library, and quite liked it, so I felt compelled to read the book. "Blorfing" quite describes my reaction to it. It was dull and distasteful, and by the end I wanted to take a shower. It's not that I didn't like smut, I found it so boring and sugary. If you're going to write an incesty horror romance, don't make it so damn saccharine. (Meanwhile, I LOVED Clan of the Cave Bear, because smut + action = reading gold!) I really don't remember much else about it.

The funny thing is, I was 13 by the time I read FitA, and given that I read things like Mandingo and the novelization of the porn film Caligula, it took a lot to faze me. I read more VC Andrews (I had a lot of time on my hands), and I found myself liking My Sweet Audrina better, though I have no desire to ever reread it.
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 10:59 PM on August 19, 2013

No Flowers in the Attic for me, but I got hold of My Sweet Audrina at age 12 or so. Still think that's somewhat responsible for me being a pervert not being entirely vanilla. Mom catched me reading it and stuttered a bit about "if I understood anything in there" (probably thinking of the violent child rape) but otherwise left me to it.
posted by ZeroAmbition at 5:21 AM on August 20, 2013

I never read the original VC Andrews books. One of my friends in 7th grade passed on Ruby to me (which I now gather was not written by Andrews?). But, I think I was super naive about sex and just in general, and I didn't find it titillating because I had no frame of reference. It was just repetitive and boring. But I kind of wish I had had the fun experience of chatting about illicit books with my friends.

I love Forever Young Adult's read-along reviews the these books, even though I haven't read them. Here's the start of the Flowers in the Attic one.
posted by bluefly at 6:26 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hi, my name is EC and I grew up female in the 1980's and yet never read FItA or FOREVER.

Actually, though, neither did most of my friends - the proto-nerds and band geeks. The closest I came, though, was when one of my friends had a slimmer party freshman year, and about six of us were there. One of us, Jen, somehow found out that the rest of us hadn't ever read FLOWERS. But we'd all heard of it, and so she started to breathlessly and eagerly give us a recap of the whole book, in detail.

Except when she got to the part about Chris and Cathy having sex, another girl suddenly and forcefully shouted, "oh, HOLD up," and refused to let her finish. There wasn't any lingering trauma or anything in our censor's past, she'd just had enough.

I'm not sure whether I missed out or not. (Jean Auel, though, I did read. My town had an indulgent librarian, and I started reading way a ove my level when I was nine, so I always gave her nightmares trying to figure out what I could read.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:20 PM on August 20, 2013 That should read a SLUMBER party, not a "slimmer" party.

autocorrect I hate you
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:36 PM on August 20, 2013

Empress Callipygos: That should read a SLUMBER party, not a "slimmer" party.

autocorrect I hate you

I guess I was following the logic of the eating disorder theme in Flowers in the Attic--I thought, "Oh no, a slimming party! That book WAS a bad influence!"

Coincidentally I saw this list of 40 Trashy Novels You Must Read Before You Die and they chose to include not Flowers in the Attic but My Sweet Audrina instead, saying "A lot of people I solicited for input on this list said, 'Oh, Flowers in the Attic, of course,' but this choice flagged them to me as rank amateurs in the matter of V.C. Andrews. The weirdest, trashiest V.C. Andrews is not Flowers—even the later books in the series, which are far weirder than the first — but rather My Sweet Audrina, in which a seven-year-old with a serious brain-fog problem is raised to replace a dead elder sister. In the woods there’s a beautiful boy living with his amputee mother who knows the real story of the First Audrina’s death. Representative quote: 'What is normal? Normal is only ordinary; mediocre. Life belongs to the rare, exceptional individual who dares to be different.'”

asperity: So many wonderful things in the links -- Andrews actually served powdered doughnuts to her editor?!

I've forgotten a lot about Flowers but the powdered doughnuts are burned in my brain. I loved that she did that to her editor! Actually, Ann Patty's recollections about Andrews are pretty interesting--it seems she was quite fond of her and recognized the sharp intelligence and warped sense of humour hidden behind the eccentricity and campiness.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:03 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ann Patty's interviews are interesting - thanks for this post, hurdy gurdy girl. My favorite part:

Flowers in the Attic is a great book, what I call an awful classic. Why is it so good? Because it captures the truth of being a captive. You have to remember, Virginia had been living in captivity for all those years, in her wheelchair, totally under the control of her mother, who she did not have a great relationship with (and who never read the books).

When the hostages came back from Iran, in an interview, one of them said that the only book that gets it right is Flowers in the Attic. Virginia was a hostage, as most teenagers feel like hostages to their parents. That’s the power.

Also, I had no idea VC Andrews was mostly immobile in a wheelchair, and when I got to that reveal in the first interview, I got a chill up my spine - like the best page-turning fiction!
posted by bluefly at 7:58 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

That quote from the Iran hostage was fascinating. I agree, bluefly--there almost seems to be an equal sign between her novels and her life of being trapped in a wheelchair, hovered over by her mother.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:50 PM on August 20, 2013

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