About the book: Growing up in the ’80s, I remember junior high girls carrying around paperback copies of Flowers in the Attic and knowing there was something scandalous about it. I later learned what the plot’s marquee scandal was, but not until I listened to the full audiobook did I understand just what a twisted web Andrews wove around her essentially helpless teenage narrator.
There’s no denying the author’s skill at writing high gothic family drama. Although certainly not marketed as a young adult novel, it’s remained popular among kids both because it’s about a girl who ages from 12 to 15 over the course of the book and because it’s completely accessible to readers of that age, even younger.
Andrews lays out what initially seems a reasonable explanation for Cathy and her three siblings to spend a couple of nights in a spacious attic (albeit one with nightmarish Bosch prints on the wall), then adds horrors gradually, one chapter at a time, building to a gasp-worthy climax. It’s like The Boxcar Children from hell.
A global sensation with over 40 million copies sold, Flowers in the Attic has spawned two film adaptations and seven sequels — three-and-a-half of them written by Andrews, who was 56 when the novel was published and died in 1986. It’s incredibly problematic for very obvious reasons, but while you probably shouldn’t wait around for Greta Gerwig to do a movie, it does have its defenders — including The New Inquiry’s Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, who calls it “the best book ever.”
Today, it reads (or, as the case may be, listens) like a catalog of women’s fears that were less often aired before the #MeToo movement and the 2016 election. Cathy is physically, sexually, and mentally abused, while constantly being guilted and gaslit into thinking it’s wrong to doubt the motives of anyone around her. The fear Andrews places at the novel’s heart is that Cathy’s been betrayed not just by the men, but by the women in her life.
About the audiobook: To mark the book’s 40th anniversary, Simon and Schuster has published a new Flowers in the Attic audiobook narrated by Mena Suvari — who, despite a long career, remains most indelibly associated with another popular entertainment involving, as the new book cover euphemistically puts it, “forbidden love.” Suvari’s performance is pitch-perfect, capturing the stilted dialogue in suitably urgent tones right down to the last “good-golly day!”
Most Christmasy moment: As the Dollanganger children mark their first Christmas in the attic (the eponymous paper flowers changed to snowflakes to celebrate the season), their mother decides it’s safe to let her two oldest sneak downstairs just this once to peek out at a grand holiday party their grandparents are throwing. They spy their spiteful grandfather in the flesh, and gain new home that maybe, just maybe, that old fucker is finally going to keel over and die.
Least Christmasy moment: When the children present their wretched grandmother with a carefully hand-crafted gift, she pointedly ignores them. Cathy screams with rage and frustration, and stomps the present to a pulp.
Photo by Sharon Mollerus (CC BY 2.0)