When I picked up this tiny looking book (compared to the behemoths I usually adhere to), I was surprised that I really, really liked it! And I can totally see why it was banned for years due to strong sexual themes, incest, rape scenes and other sensitive subjects. This is not a “cute book” about flowers. This is not for the faint of heart. This is a story of death and misery and everlasting hope.
Written in 1979 – it still feels contemporary enough to give you the chills. If you’ve watched “The Room” you know how terrifying it must feel to be locked up and not have a sense of how the outside is like. It’s claustrophobic and very enlightening about family relations in close quarters.
After reading it, I found out it was adapted for the big screen and guess what I’ve got in my eBay basket? Yep – the movie.
“Flowers in the Attic” weaves the twisted story of the Dollanganger kids who, after the unexpected death of their father, are convinced by their mother Corrine to stay hidden in the attic of their wealthy grandparents’ mansion so she can reclaim the family fortune.
But as her visits begin to wane after she becomes involved with a new husband, the children endure unimaginable treatment at the hands of their ruthless grandmother Olivia Foxworth. As years go by and the eldest children Cathy and Christopher come of age, both emotionally and physically, their family’s sordid past entraps them further as they look to each other for comfort.
There are loads of sad moments – like the twins looking at Cathy and Chris to be their surrogate parents in the absence of their mother, they just coming out of puberty themselves. I cried when the little girl cried to be let outside until she bruised her little fists or when *SPOILER * her twin brother died of pneumonia.
I was feeling hopeful when they hatched an escape plan, stole small amounts from the mother’s bedroom until they had enough cash to go free and nearly broke down again when their plan was cut short by a death. If only they’d escaped earlier, if only they hadn’t believed their mother, if only they hadn’t eaten arsenic powdered doughnuts that destroyed their health.
The final reveal was epic. I’m not going to say what it is just that the mother is the villain, of epic proportions, of this story. Grandma too. Cruel and vile Bible thumping woman.
Where was that fragile, golden-fair Dresden doll I used to be? Gone.
Gone like porcelain turned into steel-made into someone who would always get what she wanted, no matter who or what stood in her way
There are loads of themes swirling around in this tiny novel. Religious fanaticism is one of them as the grandmother asks the children to learn Bible verses while keeping them locked up in dire conditions.
To believe in God is a good thing, a right thing. But when you reinforce your belief with words you take from the Old Testament that you seek out, and interpret in the ways that suit your needs best, that is hypocrisy,
She repeats the mantras obsessively: you shall not look at your brother in lust, you shall not touch your privates or play with them, a girl and a boy cannot be in the same bathroom together, while at the same time giving them only one room to sleep in and two beds for four people. She goes so far as to put tar in Cathy’s wonderful hair after she catches her admiring her budding breasts in a mirror.
She also starves the children (including the young ones) for two weeks as punishment – bringing them to a state where they were considering eating mice they trapped and drinking blood from the wrist of the brother as nourishment.
Love … I put so much faith in it. Truth … I kept believing it falls always from the lips of the one you love and trust the most. Faith … it’s all bound up to love and trust. Where does one end and the other start, and how do you tell when love is the blindest of all?
Another theme is motherhood and what it means to nurture and care. Money can buy gifts but they can’t buy love. As the mother drifts further and further away from the kids, she starts looking at them as obstacles in her carefree path to the future. She is the one that eventually decides to go down the arsenic route and remove all traces of her past.
Catherine, her daughter, is her opposite. Caring and kind, she is the mother to the two twins and helps make their hell more livable by adding paper flowers in the attic they lived in, by nurturing a small plant, by setting food rations and getting the picky kids eating. She is the one rebelling against the institution of motherhood as she can see it’s wrong. Her brother takes some time to arrive to the same conclusion but in the end, he’s the one that decides it’s time to go. I suppose their mother only had that dried up prune of a grandmother as an example and this is why she can’t do any better, but I think she was rotten to the core.
Children are very wise intuitively; they know who loves them most, and who only pretends
Colours are also important. The mother is always very colourful, shiny, new, healthy and rosy-cheeked. Grandmother is always wearing grey as it’s a cheap colour and her austere nature won’t let her spend on anything frivolous. The children are making their own colours, to hide the lack. They make flowers and trees in the dusty attic and they use the window to look outside over the roofs.
Patience. I colored patience gray, hung over with black clouds. I colored hope yellow, just like the sun we could see for a few short morning hours. Too soon the sun rose high in the sky & disappeared from view, leaving us bereft and staring at blue.”
The last and final theme is Money vs. Love. If you have money you don’t need anything else, her mother used to say. She’s obsessed with that inheritance and will to anything for it. She lets herself be whipped and endures humiliation after humiliation just to inherit. She even lets her children suffer so that she could be closer to that dough.
The children are kept fed and dressed and she thinks she has performed her motherly duties as long as the children are not lacking for anything material. Except freedom and fresh air.
The love shines through slowly between the brothers and being locked up together they look at each other to learn. About what makes a man different from a woman, about intimacy and care, about falling in love.
It was the eyes. The secret of love was in the eyes, the way one person looked at another, the way eyes communicated and spoke when the lips never moved.
I can’t say what they did was right but it’s not like they had any other choice, being locked up together as they were..
Perhaps lovers aren’t supposed to look down at the ground. That kind of story is told in symbols–and earth represents reality, and reality represents frustrations, chance illnesses, death, murder, and all kinds of other tragedies. Lovers are meant to look up at the sky, for up there no beautiful illusions can be trampled upon.”
They mature together, they get wizened up by the cruel world they lived in, they are wise beyond their years
just on the verge of becoming a woman, and in these three years and almost five months, I’d reached maturity. I was older than the mountains outside. The wisdom
of the attic was in my bones, etched on my brain, part of my flesh.
We lived in the attic,
Christopher, Cory, Carrie, and me,
Now there are only three.