This year, Lifetime Television began producing movie versions of V.C. Andrews’ “classic” tales in the Dollanganger series, starting with Flowers in the Attic. I don’t have cable, but was lucky enough to be on a business trip at the time, which meant, yay, hotel cable! (My unfortunate husband was roped into watching it with me, on our anniversary, no less.) For the second installment, Petals on the Wind, I was once again traveling (hm, I wonder if If There Be Thorns will come out in time for Midwinter 2015?), and had the chance to savor every over-the-top moment.
Anyone who watches the movies without the (dubious) benefit of reading the books first will likely turn them off after just a few minutes—the dialogue is awful, the acting even worse, and if you don’t already know the plot, you’ll never understand what’s going on. The basic outline is this: Man marries cousin. Incredibly wealthy parents outraged, cut couple out of inheritance. Couple has four lovely children, father dies in a tragic accident, mother is forced to crawl back to family asking for forgiveness and acceptance. Wicked and batshit crazy grandmother agrees to let mother and children back into palatial family home, but locks kids in attic. All kinds of over-the-top drama ensues, including religious mania, incest, and arsenic poisoning. Cut to book two, where kids (now young adults) escape attic, are taken in by kindly doctor and his mute housekeeper. Chris, the older boy, is still obsessed with his sister, Cathy, who is obsessed with moving to New York to become a ballerina. She does so, only after rejecting the doctor’s marriage proposal after discovering his own melodramatic past. Younger sister Carrie, still in high school, meets a terrible fate after not being able to drown out the years of berating by the grandmother, convinced that she is “devil’s spawn” and should have never been born. If you want the most clever and hilarious take on the series possible, check out the book reports on Forever Young Adult.
Any time I talk to people about their experiences with this series—and I find myself talking about it a lot lately, thanks to the movies—no one can quite put their finger on why we liked them so much. But there is no doubt that women who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s hold a special place in their hearts for these books. The common refrain is usually that they were passed around at slumber parties, or at school, or maybe swiped from our moms, if they were young and cool enough. Everyone remembers the black covers with the peek-a-boo frames, and we compare notes on which scenes have stayed in our heads longer than anything we might have read in our seventh grade English class. Most of us were not savvy about sex, and likely skimmed right over those scenes—they aren’t at all graphic, and we just knew they were dirty. But there’s a lot more to these novels than just the sex.
A January 2014 Slate article on the series goes as far as to draw parallels between the outrageous plot and the need for girls to assert their independence, as well as the fear of turning into one’s mother. That may be stretching things a bit, but where the article really gets it right is summed up with this: “The novel addressed the disconnect between feelings that were hard for us to acknowledge and fiction that we were supposed to like. Despite its excesses, it conveyed a sadness about being robbed of normalcy that felt authentic to teens that were experiencing varying degrees of their own family dysfunction.”
The vast catalog of V.C. Andrews books usually strikes fear in the hearts of librarians. After all, they are mass-market paperbacks, likely to go missing or fall apart (those stepback covers don’t hold up well), and worse, there are 77 titles in 20 different series (not surprisingly, they all feature young adult women, and a host of horrors awaits for every heroine.) When Andrews died in 1986, ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman took over and is still churning out the beauties. Patrons keep requesting them, and librarians valiantly try to keep track of them, even while wrinkling their noses—and veteran librarians know that Fifty Shades of Grey had nothing on Andrews’ oeuvre.
While most lovers of literature scorn the purplest of purple prose that is found within those black covers—not to mention their utter disgust with the forbidden sexuality, outrageous plot holes, obsession with religion, and psychotic characters—I talk about the books with near reverence, and I proudly declare my love for them. At the base level, I read for entertainment. I read to be taken out of my pleasant little regular old life, and nothing’s better than a book that sweeps me up in a fascinating story, no matter how crude or unrealistic it may be. And you know what? I have come to the realization that these novels played a role in my success as a reader’s advisory librarian. Every RA librarian has Betty Rosenberg’s quote inscribed upon their hearts: “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” Some give lip service to that, but I live it. Every book can be judged as good, if someone enjoys it. If I am willing to gleefully pick up and re-read a V.C. Andrews novel, who am I to look down on any other reader?
I find it pretty amusing that there’s a big hubbub right now about people having to defend their reading choices, with articles on why adults shouldn’t read YA or why a celebrated (and decidedly literary) novel isn’t highbrow enough to warrant accolades. Why is this even an issue? (As Cathy would say, “Golly-lolly!”) My reading has a wide range. In fact, my copy of Flowers in the Attic sits nicely on the shelf next to my dog-eared college copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (interesting juxtaposition, dontcha’ think?). I encourage everyone to get outside of your reading comfort zone and pick up something you normally sneer at. (Andrews’ My Sweet Audrina is a doozy. . .) You might just find yourself enjoying it. And there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.