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Flowers in the Attic: Sex and the pre-teen girl

Like many young girls who grew up the 1980s, I stumbled upon “Flowers in the Attic” because I was attracted to its cut-out paperback cover. (Anyone remember those? You’d open it to reveal a bigger – usually creepier – picture underneath.) In “Flowers in the Attic,” the image of a beautiful blonde girl looking tentatively out a window hinted of family secrets inside. I was hooked and I hadn’t even read page one.

Back then V.C. Andrews’ name was synonymous with a kind of pulp gothic horror, including rather large helpings of sex and incest. Here, four Dollanganger children are forced to hide in a kind of attic apartment in their grandparents’ mansion while their newly-widowed and now-indigent mother, Corinne, does her best to get back into her wealthy father’s good graces – and therefore into his will. Why her children need to be hidden to accomplish this is revealed later, but only after repeated beatings by their evil grandmother; also, visits from their mother grow more and more infrequent as time goes on.

And as time goes on, the older of the hidden Dollangangers, Chris and Cathy, start to develop … feelings for each other. In a way it’s icky, in a way titillating, and also understandable, as who else are they going to turn to at this point? Andrews does make us root for this unorthodox (to say the least) relationship, since they’ve endured practically nothing but suffering since they walked into that attic, and now here’s their one chance at happiness. (I was reading “Flowers in the Attic” on a plane and couldn’t help but cry when one of the few sweet characters suddenly died. It was quite embarrassing but damn, that was sad.)

The Dollangager saga continued with “Petals in the Wind,” which I also devoured, as I did subsequent sequels “If There Be Thorns” and “Seeds of Yesterday.” Andrews also took on other, similar series – usually a beautiful young girl, on the cusp of puberty, forced into unending torment until the metaphorical knight comes and saves her. Heaven for this 13-year-old. (In fact, one of Andrews’ characters was named Heaven. Heaven Leigh, to be precise.) This may be why Andrews’ novels continued to be published after her death – her estate hired ghost writer Andrew Neiderman to literally be a ghost writer here.

“Flowers in the Attic” and its ilk may fall under the category of “would not be published no way no how” these days, but it was definitely a product of its time. And 40 million readers couldn’t be wrong, could they?