Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews

A review of the transgressive gothic literary novel Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews.

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Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews is the story of the Dollanganger children. After their father is killed in a traffic accident, their mother has no choice but to take the family to live with her parents, the fanatically strict but impossibly rich Foxworths. In order to wheedle her way into her dying father’s good graces, she hides her children in the attic of the Foxworth mansion and tells them to stay there until she can secure their fortune. Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan.

Deep down I thought life was sure to always put me between Scylla and Charybdis, and give to me always Hobson’s Choice.

This book is trash. However, it is compelling trash—it is so extreme in its trashiness that it can easily pass the boundary into ‘so bad it’s good’ territory. Reader mileage may vary on that point. But for me this could easily be a one-star or a five-star book. For now, I’ll call it a one-star.

There’s not a lot of plot. The children live in an attic, hoping that their grandfather will die and they’ll be let out. The tension is manufactured between the children, their terrible grandmother, and their equally terrible mother. This isn’t a rollercoaster of a story; it could politely be called a character-driven slow burn.

The writing is horrendous. I don’t know if Virginia Andrews actually thought children spoke like this, or if this is a very avant-garde stylistic choice, but there are so many terrible lines.

I’d never seen his blue eyes show so much respect as they lit up with admiration. “Wow, what a fantastic idea, Cathy! Terrific! Exactly what we’ll do if a fire starts—which it won’t. And boy, it sure is good to know you’re not going to be a cry-baby after all. When you think ahead and plan for unexpected contingencies it shows you’re growing up, and I like that.”

Golly-day, in twelve years of hard striving, I had at last won his respect and approval, and reached a goal I thought impossible.

The characters talking here are Chris, aged 14, and Cathy, aged 12. Although to be frank their ages are moot here, as I don’t think any human, regardless of how old they are, would ever utter dialogue like this.

The main reason I’d heard of this book—and the reason for its infamy—is (Spoiler alert!) the incest. After being locked up in the attic for years, Chris and Cathy develop a relationship and sleep together in a weird (arguably rapey) scene near the end. I find incest a fascinating subject, so that didn’t bother me as much as the writing and the way that content was handled. That’s the biggest problem with this book for me—it feels like if a different author had written the same story, it could be really interesting story about families and mother to daughter relationships with a nice heavy gothic atmosphere. But Virginia Andrews wrote this book, and subtlety doesn’t appear to be her strong point.

If you like your books trashy and sensational and staggering with problematic content, I’d recommend giving this a read.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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