Flowers in the Attic

There’s a very popular book1 out there that’s badly written and has a dumb plot and a central character without a particle of gumption. Almost eveyone I know has read it and they either adore it or feel the same way I feel about it.

I admit that the people who love this book have kind of been driving me crazy. How could they think it’s well-written when it’s riddled with cliches and purple prose? How could they relate to the most passive protag of all time? How could they reread this godawful book over and over again? Have they all gone mad?

Then I cast my mind back to my first year of high school2 and the book me and all my mates were obsessed with: Flowers in the Attic by the prolific-even-when-dead V. C. Andrews.

Let’s see:

  • Riddled with cliche? Check.
  • Purple prose i.e. why use one adjective when you could use many? “Long, grim, dreary, nightmarish days”? Check.
  • Passive protag? They do remain in the attic an awfully long time without making a break for it . . .
  • Stupid plot? Do I even need to type check?

And yet I loved that book and read it over and over again and talked about it with all my friends. At the time I thought V. C. Andrews was one of the best writers ever. I knew many adults didn’t think so, but what would they know?

Flowers in the Attic has coloured how I think about plot, characterisation and story for many years now. I don’t think it would be overstating it to say that without Flowers I would not be the writer I am today. (Yeah, I know, for better and for worse.)

I often say that you can learn as much—if not more—from bad writing than from good. It’s much easier to see what’s going on when something is badly written, and to figure out how not to do that. Bad writing pulls you out of the text over and over again.

But when I was compulsively reading Flowers I thought it was a work of genius. Nothing short of being shaken would’ve pulled me out of that book. I wasn’t learning the what-not-to-do lessons; I was learning about how to use melodrama, suspense and betrayal. Lessons that have come in mucho handy while writing the Magic or Madness trilogy.

If I could go back in time I would not tell the twelve-year-old me to put Flowers in the Attic down and back away from the table. So why do I feel compelled to tell people how bad this other book is every time it comes up? Who’s to say they aren’t learning a whole bunch of cool things about story telling from it? Or seeing other stuff that I’m completely blind to?

On the other hand, I haven’t reread Flowers since I was fifteen maybe it’s not as bad as I suspect it is . . .

  1. Do not try to guess the name of the book. I will not tell you. The point of this post is not to trash a fellow writer. []
  2. In Australia high school starts in year 7 so I was twelve when afflicted with V. C. Andrews love. []


  1. sara z on #

    Oh, it’s bad (Flowers). But it’s not as bad as the 297 books that came after it, also “written by V.C. Andrews.” And yes, I read them all. At least, up until about age 24.

    I don’t really have anything against bad books – it’s only when my envy rears its head that they start to really bug.

  2. robinwasserman on #

    Embarrassing admission: As a teenager, I loved VC Andrews so much that I planted a tree in her honor. (Why was I planting trees in the first place? Different story.) Suffice it to say, I worshipped her, purple prose or not. Double embarrassing admission: I still read my copy of “My Sweet Audrina” every couple years. It’s just (so bad but) too good.

  3. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    i loved v.c. andrews. loved!

    flowers in the attic, but most especially petals on the wind.

    yes, the kids in f.i.t.a. were as freaking retarded and passive, but if they had just busted out of there immediately as you or i might have done, they wouldn’t have had a chance to form their unholy union. i don’t know about you, but that unholy union was what hooked me!

    anyway, old v.c. was pretty bad, but at least she had style. the author-who-will-not-be-trashed is weak tea in comparison. still, i see what you mean.

  4. Sherwood Smith on #

    I think that is one of those “the golden age is twelve” books. I remember when it first came out it was the ONLY book my sis loved, and she loved it with a passion. Until then she hadn’t even been a reader. I tried several times to get into it, and just couldn’t–it wasn’t just the stupid plot and the melodrama. I can handle those fine if there is a leavening of humor, but there wasn’t any. I suspect if I’d been way younger, i would have sucked it up, too.

    My personal love-en-to-pieces at age 12 were Gothick romances.

  5. Justine on #

    So very excellent not to be alone on this one!

    Sara Z: And yet I’m so tempted to do a re-read. I need to know just how bad . . .

    Do you mean envy at how well they’re selling? I confess that sometimes that is somewhat disheartening. And then along comes a beautifully written book that sells like hotcakes and my faith in humanity returns.

    Robin: Okay, I must know the tree story. I mean other than planting trees is a very good thing to do. I learned yesterday that trees are the very best.

    Jennifer: We should all form a my-life-has-been-shaped-by-vcandrews club!

    And, um, yes, it’s possible that the unholy union was part of the appeal. Maybe, sort of, kinda.

    Now you’re making us sound like old fuddy duddies (though possibly just using the word “fuddy duddy” will achieve that): “In my day even the bad writers had style . . . ”

    Sherwood: I do not doubt for a second that that’s true. Me, Robyn and Jennifer (and I suspect Sara) are all of an age . . . Which particular gothick romances?

  6. sara z on #

    yeah, I’m old. 35. you know, i think jennifer is right. vc had style. the way jackie collins has style, you know? and you probably should pick it up just for fun. it’s hot horrible. the writing must have had something going for it if I can still vividly remember all those scenes – the arsenic donuts, the tar on the hair, the swollen members, etc.

    yes – by envy I guess I mean the sales, the popularity, all that stuff. the usual petty nonsence.

  7. Justine on #

    Sara Z: Mmmmm, arsenic donuts! You’re dead right—all of that truly has stayed with me.

    The envy’s perfectly natural. There are lots and lots of other reasons we write, but the wanting to be read and enjoyed is way up there. And it’s hard not to feel a wee bit miffed when someone else is getting all that when we don’t think what they write is much chop.

    Fortunately, others’ success do not take away from our own. I’m so grateful not to be participating in a zero sum game. I just wish I could remember that all the time.

  8. Celia on #

    While I personally did not read Flowers in the Attic (it looked scary! And I was not a fan of scariness) it was *the* book to read when I was about 12 as well–all my friends read it while I was in school, and when I talk to people my age about it, they all read it at 12 as well.

  9. Diana on #

    I could never get through Flowers. Not even through the first few chapters. My “obsessed in my early teens” book was The Mists of Avalon. Oh, I adored it beyond all capacity for human understanding. Completely obsessed. I tried to read some of the sequels (and my mom, bless her heart, kept buying them for me long after they were no longer written by MZB), but I never cared for any of them, nor did I care for any other MZB book, *nor* did I care for very many other arthurian legend books. So go figure.

    I’m afraid of trying to read it again, though.

  10. lili on #

    Oh, diana, don’t do it!

    I was the same. obsessed with mists of avalon and the jean m auel books. don’t go back. it’s awful. it’s meant to be a feminist spin on the arthurian legend – except it’s all about how morgaine is totally useless because she’s in love with lancelot. who, by the way, is a total brainless jock. bleck.

  11. Dawn on #

    OK…I judged “Flowers…” by its cover…I thought the cut-out thing was cool.

  12. Elise on #

    Haven’t read Flowers in the Attic–is it too late for me? Would I think you’re all nuts?–but I’m one of the people who has tirelessly defended the book in question to Justine, not because it’s well written or has a clever plot or great characterizations or whatever other standards we might apply, but because at some level it delivers emotionally what it sets out to deliver. Books succeed in different ways, you know? Which I think is partly the point of Justine’s post. And some books are kind of like comfort foods–they may not be fine cuisine or particularly good for you, but they reliably satisfy some primal need. So we sheepishly apologize for liking them, but it doesn’t change how much we like them. At 12, I was addicted to those Victoria Holt historical romances full of governesses, widowers, and heaving bosoms. And The Thorn Birds, full of priests and heaving bosoms.

  13. Justine on #

    Diana: I loved that one too! Haven’t reread it in years.

    Lili: Really?

    Dawn: There was a cut out?

    Elise: Maybe it’s not too late for you—afterall you like the book that won’t be named 🙂 Not that I’m necessarily talking about the book that you think I’m talking about. There are other books . . .

    But, yes, that’s it exactly. We all have certain buttons that can be pushed by even badly written tosh.

    Oh my Elvis! I adored Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy and alll those books. Read them by the truckload. Thornbirds made me so very happy. The mini-series on the other hand. Grrr. A bigger assembly of really crappy Oz accents I have not encountered. (Yes, yes, I’m excepting those actors what were actually Aussie.)

  14. Cecelia(C.C) on #

    I haven’t read that one. I’ve only read the Laundry series. and they were….pretty good…very awsome(please don’t hurt me!)

    i’ve heard of flowers in the attic. i was even going to buy it. but now….
    what happens in that book that makes it so…revolting or whatever?

    i don’t know. i used to love v.c.andrews and her books. but please tell me what’s wrong with them!

    has anyone read a certain slant of light by laura whitcomb? it’s amazing!
    and i may be the only one that hates sense and sensibility. (sorry people!)

  15. Diana on #

    the only auel book i read as a child was cave bear, and I loved it. but I could never get into horses, so I stopped. then a few years ago, while backpacking through new zeland, i started reading them again (hostel bookswaps in NZ are replete with them). I really loved cave bear again, skipped all the parts in horses that were about jondalar screwing his way across the continent in favor of all the cool stuff about ayla learning to live on her own, somehow made it through the sappy stuff in mammoth because all the cultural stuff was very cool, and then loved plains of passage. then I came home and never did read the last one. but I was 25 and still loved it. the hunting scenes! wow! they’re so gorgeous!

  16. lili on #

    cave bear was the best one. after that it really became 20% interesting history stuff and 80% soft porn.

    i always skipped the bits with jondalar in the valley of horses – i was much more interested in ayla and her various pets. although i did get a bit sick of the way ayla invented everything – the needle and thread, domestication of animals, the spear-thrower, the idea that sex leads to babies…

    the last book’s strange… it all goes a bit mystical and fantastic.

  17. Sherwood Smith on #

    Oh, I read every single gothick romance I could find in the library. The only ones that stay with me now are the Mary Stewarts, which actually are rereadable–she was a damn fine prose stylist. There was also one Victoria Holt wherein she broke the story formula, and had the heroine end up single and the one in power, having triumphed over the men, the Evil Women, and everyone. That one opened my eyes but good at age 13. Legend of the Seventh Virgin, it’s cakked–probably really tame and stale now, but it sure wasn’t then.

  18. kristin on #

    Oh the memories… I, too, was a Flowers girl, and I think I read at least two of the others in the series. I could probably be quizzed on the plots of the first two. It’s funny the little details I remember: tar in the hair and how they got it out, ballet and the mother’s swan bed.

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