Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews is not a romance novel. It’s horror. Let’s get that straight right away. Still, it’s an influential book for many romance readers.
Here’s the plot: Chris, Cathy, Cory and Carrie Dollenganger start out as part of the perfect family. So blond and lovely are these charmed four and their picture-perfect parents, Corrine and Christopher, Senior, that they acquire a collective nickname, the Dresden Dollengangers. They’re living the suburban dream until Christopher Senior perishes in a tragic auto accident on his birthday. Older kids Chris and Cathy soon learn that their perfect life was all an illusion, and the family is deep in debt. Not only does Corrine have to sell off most of their possessions to satisfy creditors, but the family must leave their home and go begging to Corrinne’s wealthy parents. So far, this could work in a romance, providing tragic background material for four future heroes and heroines (five, if mom Corrine gets her own romance in a companion novella) but things soon take a very different turn.
Foxworth Hall, the Dollengangers’ destination, also might have been a home to a romance dynasty in some other world. A huge, stately home, this is where Corrine and her children arrive after a midnight journey. She stashes the children in the attic only for a while, only until she can convince her parents to forgive her for running off with the oh-so-unsuitable Christopher. In a romance, Christopher might have been only a stableboy, handsome footman or bad boy with a heart of gold, from the wrong side of town, but it’s far worse than that. Christopher was Corrine’s half-uncle, and Corrine’s children bear the taint of their parents’ sin. Only when Corrine’s father has died can Corrine reveal her children. Until then, they need to stay hidden. Since the Grandfather is on the brink of death, it should only be a few days.
It’s more than that. Long enough for Chris and Cathy to take on parental roles in caring for their younger siblings, cutting out paper flowers to put on the attic walls to simulate the changing of the seasons. Long enough for the Grandmother’s list of impossible rules—no contact whatsoever between boys and girls, for a starter—to turn the attic into a pressure cooker. Cory and Carrie become weak and sickly, and Chris and Cathy can depend on only each other. The fact that they are young teens going through puberty in such a restrictive and abusive environment doesn’t lend itself to romance as much as it does psychological horror, but the intensity of the emotion here is what sticks with many readers. It’s only Chris who can see or appreciate Cathy’s natural talent for ballet, only Cathy who can understand the drive and intellect that fuel Chris’s desire to become a doctor, even if he must educate himself. Only Chris and Cathy who can comprehend what it means when they discover their mother has had access to a life of luxury all the while they have been taking desperate measures to stay alive.
In a romance, all four children would have escaped their captivity, nursed their psychological wounds and found partners who could accept them even with their physical and emotional scars. Maybe that “what if” is part of what makes this story resonate with romance readers. Wounded hero? Check. Wounded heroine? Check. Orphaned (or functionally so) young children for whom the hero and heroine must assume a parental role? Check. Family home that is a character unto itself? Check. Parental issues? Check plus, over multiple generations.
There is a squidge factor with this book, and a strong argument that there’s supposed to be. According to the author’s family, the idea for what would become Flowers in the Attic was based off a tale told to the author by one of her doctors, upon whom she had a crush while under his care. Perhaps that added some to the book’s mystique, the forbidden factor, the way “oh, you shouldn’t read that” can flip in an instant to “ooh, then I better read that.” For some readers, passing Flowers in the Attic around at school became a rite of passage. Had you read it yet? Were you going to read it? Why? Why not? Too scary? Too icky? Even for those who chose not to read, there were a thousand discussions to be had. Not that different from some discussions in the romance community today in that respect. Love it, hate it or take a pass on the whole deal, Flowers in the Attic is one of those polarizing books that can always get people talking. Maybe that’s the true Dollenganger legacy.
Anna C. Bowling considers writing historical romance the best way to travel through time and make the voices in her head pay rent. She welcomes visitors to her blog, Typing with Wet Nails and to follow her at Twitter.