Dec 11 2013 4:37pm

Flowers in the Attic: The Most Polarizing Romance Gateway Book Ever?

Flowers in the Attic by V.C. AndrewsFlowers 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.

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1. CarrieB
I think I had Stockhom Syndrome from this book because, despite the horrors, I sympathized with the need for the characters to connect to something. Perhaps it was my age (early teen) that romantized everything, or maybe because I just like really jacked up characters (I do). I still think of this series, and other disturbing VC Andrews series, often. That lady sure knew how to stir things up!
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
I was one of the ones who avoided it at all cost. Just the thought of it gave me nightmares.
Anna Bowling
3. AnnaBowling
@CarrieB, the combination of the psychological horror and the need to connect is a powerful pairing, and when combined with a reader in that early teen stage, it's a perfect storm. V.C. Andrews really did know how to stir things up and write memorable characters.

@bungluna, you're not alone. I avoided it for a long time myself for similar reasons.
4. Torifl
I read it first when I was around 10-11 years old. I found it facinating. The forbidden romance was strong and combined with the over the top soap opera style story and plot lines, I was hooked.

I recently re read it a few years ago. While I still enjoyed, my age and experiences shadowed some of my enjoyment. I found myself less enamoured of Cathy this go around. I'll still watch the movie coming out in Jan though. :) And read Christopher's Diary.
Jamie Brenner
5. jamieloganbrenner
@Torifl I plan to re-read it before the movie, but I'm a little afraid that I'll feel the same as you -- less captivated. I'm not sure I want to mess with the magic I experienced first time around, but I feel this strong pull to re-visit the material.
Allison Brennan
6. Allison_Brennan
I read it and all my friends and we definitely talked about it! I don't know specifically what drove me to like the book, and I read all the subsequent in the series (didn't like them as much -- I don't remember them as well, but they were much sadder.) But ... it was shortly after this that I started reading Stephen King and other horror writers. There wasn't a lot of YA for the younger teen crowd in the early 80s. Not that FLOWERS was YA, but it was about teenagers, and so that's why I think a lot of teens gravitated toward it.
Anna Bowling
7. AnnaBowling
@Torifl, forbidden romance is a classic, and the over the top soap opera storytelling can definitely capture a reader's attention. Maybe this is especially strong with young readers. I've heard from others who have reservations about rereading FITA or other early reads for exactly the same reason - that it might not be the same when read from a more mature perspective. I had not heard of Christopher's Diary, but that should be an interesting read. part of me resists FITA books not written by Ms. Andrews herself, but the longtime ghostwriter should be familiar by now with her voice and the story world, so the other part is making grabby hands. The Lifetime movie has got to be better than the original release, which set the bar pretty low. Did you know that Wes Craven wrote a script treatment for FITA, but it was never produced? That counts as a horror story in its own right.

@jamieloganbrenner, a reread before the movie sounds like a wonderful idea, and could probably drum up some great discussion - for the movie as well. The material does have a pull to it, and if the magic of the first time doesn't endure, the perspective of rereading can also add additional levels to the experience.

@Allison_Brennan, modern YA readers definitely have a much wider selection from which to choose than those of us who read FITA in our formative years. Very interesting to hear of this book as a gateway horror read; would love to hear more about that. What other horror writers did you explore?
8. Torifl
@AnnaBowling-I think that s why YAs and NAs are so hot this year. Teenagers are dramatic people and the years crop of books for this age group has been prolific and saturated with drame, angst, and the over the top campy storylines.

@jamieloganbrenner There is a tiny part of me that regrets re reading it. *sigh* I also re read My Sweet Audrina. Egads. That book was f'ed up. lol I would have loved a sequel to that one.
Anna Bowling
9. AnnaBowling
@Torifl, I think you've got a point there. Excellent spotting.

Ohhhh, My Sweet Audrina. That was another out there story. For some reason, my brain always kept confusing it with For Love of Audrey Rose, by Frank DeFillita (which I have not read) - I think it was the "Aud" name and the similar cover treatment.
10. ksanchez
I read FITA in junior high -- I now teach junior high (and all four of MY children are past junior high) -- so it has been quite a while.

This was actually not my first VC Andrews book. My Sweet Audrina was my first (FITA was my second). I was amazed at the graphic details, being so young. I was the reader who had all the girls clustered around me, oohing & awing over the details. It was my 12/13 year old desire for the forbidden that had me seeking out more of her books.

No other book was as graphic as My Sweet Audrina, but each definitely had the forbidden. I read Andrews subsequent series for years, but did eventually "outgrow" the writing style (which is interesting when you consider that the books were eventually written a multiple ghost writer).

I guess I am out of the loop, having been surprised to hear everyone talk about a movie that is about to be released. But I am also old enough to remember that a FITA movie WAS released in about 1987. It was horrible, altered horribly, and killed any chance of telling "the rest of the story". (I find it interesting that in your synopsis, you mentioned that Chris Sr was Collete's half-uncle. While it's true ... there is soooo much more to the story once you read the entire series.)

I look forward to the movie. Don't know that I will reread the book. It has a time-honored place in my memory, and -- after reading the comments above -- I don't know that I want to alter that memory.
11. Taylor4714
It's spelled Dollanganger.
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