Pocket, $7.99, ISBN 0-671-72947-0
Contemporary Gothic Fiction, 1990
VC Andrews – now isn’t she an interesting author? Purists and moralists scoff at the late VC Andrews, but they seem to overlook just how much the author managed to capture the imaginations of teenaged girls with her books. I’m not immune, even when there are only two VC Andrews books that I can reread on a regular basis – Flowers in the Attic and the sequel Petals on the Wind. The rest are mere clones of these two really great testaments to the author’s twisted brand of genius.
A little background on Flowers in the Attic: in that book, our lovely heroine Catherine Dollanganger, her brother Christopher, and the younger twins Cory and Carrie are shocked when their father is killed in an accident one fine day. Shortly after, their mother Corrine bring them all to a visit to their estranged grandfather’s home. Next thing you know, our kids are locked in the attic. At least they believe their mother when she says that this arrangement is only temporary and they will all leave once Corrine regains the favor of her father. Of course, the mother won’t let them go, in fact, she and the evil grandmother are soon feeding poisoned donuts to the kids. Why are they doing this? See, for Corrine, it is too hard work to just sue the parents for money, she will have to agree to insane demands from the evil grandmother to punish the kids. For the Grandmother, it is probably too difficult to, I don’t know, accidentally burn down the attic with the kids in it or something. At the end of this overwrought and ridiculous melodramatic rigmarole, Cory is dead and the kids manage to flee the house in the dark of night.
Petals on the Wind picks up from where the first book ends. This time around, poor Catherine! She just wants to be a ballerina, but her own brother Christopher is hopelessly in love with her. Oh yes, you read that right, if this incest angle isn’t open knowledge by now. Before you recoil though, let me say that a young girl’s most illicit fantasies made life and morality don’t really go together, just like how morality and sexual fantasies rarely make comfortable bed partners. And this book is definitely the book that started the whole Mary Sue nonsense and drove legions of teenage girls into writing breathless fanfiction starring dark and dangerous unattainable men.
Cathy is Mary Sue. She is beautiful, so beautiful that men stop and look at her, enthralled at first sight. The much older doctor that takes her and her siblings in is helpless to resist her charms and they fall in love after a typical sixteen-year old girl’s loss of virginity scene. Although, technically, Cathy is no virginal sixteen-year old. Emotionally, however, she may as well be. Then there’s the cruel, breathtakingly erratic and illicit dark and dangerous lover, Julian, who dances with Cathy and eventually marries her. When he dies after some melodramatic Betrayal and Despair nonsense, Cathy decides to wreck vengeance on her mother and she does this by seducing her mother’s husband, Bart. Who, of course, also falls for Cathy because she is so bee-yoo-tiful and blonde. All the while, Paul, the doctor who always love Cathy, and Chris, the brother who really needs psychiatric help, are looking at her with hangdog besotted eyes.
Of course this book is horrible on the whole, although there are some unexpected moments of elegant and even poetic writing at times. The author has an unreasonable habit of overusing the exclamation mark in her writing. Everyone is so melodramatic that they just don’t do things, they enact scenes and make opuses out of the every day that they live on this world. They don’t just love, they love so passionately that it’s like poison slowly killing them all. I love it. Then again, I remembered reading Wuthering Heights all those years ago and being so enthralled by the insane, violent passions of the two idiots Catherine and Heathcliff that every thing – overwrought writing and all – is forgiven. Petals on the Wind, however, is a class in itself when it comes to being a classic. It captures every conceivable young girl’s secret fantasy, weaves lurid melodramas out of them, and scores a home run. Even I, who read this book when I am far from being a teenaged girl, find myself feeling thirteen again as I turn the pages of this book, eyes wide-opened because I can’t believe someone is writing nonsense this fun and good.
I love Cathy. She’s a silly and selfish bitch. But she’s… how do I put it? She’s me, the selfish teenage girl resenting everything back in the old days. If I ever believed that I am always right and I will show the world if I have the chance, Cathy is the vicarious passport. She breaks the rules. She goes after the mean, petty bitches that make her life hell. Along the way, she captures and dazzles the world with her pretty, pretty dancing, every man loves her, every other girl is jealous of her, and in the end, she wins. She is triumphant, although the author tries to dampen the victory with some morality-tinged addendum. (This addendum is similar to those in old erotica, where after the main characters have every kind of sex at least twice, all described in graphic and salacious details, then something happens to remind readers not to be like those fun people in those books.)
Cathy proves to the world that she is right all along: she’s perfect and she’s gorgeous and it is the world that is evil for not seeing it earlier. The book tries to pretend that Cathy’s victory comes with a price, but come on – look a little closer and one will realize that Cathy gains more than she loses in this book. She gets both the two men inexplicably devoted to her despite her showing her selfish bitch true colors in this book, she walks away not needing to grow up and the repercussions she face seem trivial compared to her triumph. The satisfaction I derive from following Cathy’s victory all but ooze from the pages.
This book also captures the antagonism of a teenage girl with the female authority figures as well the Freudian affections for Dear Daddy perfectly. Cathy ages as the story progresses, but she will always be the teenage girl on a mission to prove to the world that she is better than everybody else.
And oh, the men in this story! They are like larger-than-life stereotypes of a girl’s rite of passage when it comes to having girly crushes. Paul is the older man, the safe but exciting father figure that she yearns for in her life. Julian is the dark, cruel boyfriend that every young girl believes to be the epitome of romanticism – just think Heathcliff – and Julian is worse. But he’s exciting, larger-than-life, irresistible when he wants to be, and he is from the ballet world that Cathy longs to be part of so badly. How can she resist? Bart is the man she seeks vengeance on, only too succeed to well when he falls hopelessly in love with her (yes, she wins and Mommy loses!), and she, magnanimous in her victory, decides that she loves him back too. Bart is the Mata-Hari/Seduction Revenge fantasy of truly daring teenage girls made life. You probably know the sort: something like your average heroine seeking vengeance on the arrogant football jock only to have the jock seeing you, I mean, her, for what a bee-yoo-tiful girl she is, et have true love marry and live happily after cetera.
And of course, there’s Chris, stable, steady, ever reliable, and always codependent Chris, who truly defines the meaning of “forbidden love” in every sense of that term. Chris isn’t a character as much as the reflection of the heroine’s ego – and mine – on a mirror. His devotion to her is forever faithful and constant, unchanging with time, and he is irrevocably devoted to her. He loves her because she looks just like Mommy, only Cathy doesn’t hurt him so badly like Mommy did. So yes, Chris is not just a female masturbation fantasy, he is also a walking Freudian baggage case. But seriously, how can I resist such a character in my book? If any man did the things Chris did for Cathy in this book, I’ll dump Hugh Jackman for him without any hesitation. From traveling miles and miles in the dead of night just to buy Cathy her favorite brand of ice cream that he happens to overhear her mentioning earlier that day – what a stupid man, I know, but isn’t that romantic nonetheless? – to his breathtakingly passionate scenes of envious outbursts whenever Cathy flees from him to other men, Chris is just unbelievable. His constant declarations and pleas for Cathy to love him back – wow. I mean, come on, how can I resist a man that says things like this:
“I do have a girl I love,” he answered. “I’ve known her all my life. When I go to sleep at night, I dream of her, dancing overhead, calling my name, kissing my cheek, screaming when she has nightmares, and I wake up to take the tar from her hair. There are times when I wake up to ache all over, as she aches all over, and I dream I kiss the marks the whip made… and I dream of a certain night when she and I went out on the cold slate roof and stared up at the sky, and she said the moon was the eye of God looking down and condemning us for what we were. So there, Cathy, is the girl who haunts me and rules me, and fills me with frustrations, and darkens all the hours I spend with other girls who just can’t live up to the standards she set. And I hope to God you are satisfied.
“Angel, saint, Devil’s spawn, good or evil, you’ve got me pinned to the wall and labeled yours until the day I die. And if you die first, then it won’t be long before I follow.”
Isn’t that the most overcooked, overwrought thing ever? Why is it then that I sigh wistfully after reading that scene? How embarrassing. How… sigh. When I remember how Chris actually spent his summer waiting tables only to spend all his earnings on a ring for Cathy for her birthday (along with a really nicely-worded card), I can’t take it anymore. I have to put the book down and gaze into a mirror to make sure that I have not grown pigtails or became fifteen again. Then I resume reading, hoping that nobody catches me while I’m at it.
VC Andrews has done something here that very few authors succeed in doing. She has taken a young woman’s selfish desires and fantasies and weave a melodrama where passions always flow violently and people do drastic actions in the name of love and revenge. In VC Andrews’ little own dark and secret garden, young girls are allowed to live out their wildest Mary Sue fantasies and take a dip into the Freudian waters without fearing condemnation and repercussions. I’m not saying that it is okay to love one’s brother that way, mind you, but it’s what Christopher stands for in this book that makes him so effective. He’s the perfect fantasy: a hero that loves and loves deeply, truly, constantly, and eternal even as the heroine pretends to be modest (“Pretty? Moi?”) and runs around acting like a selfish hellion bent on making Mommy’s life hell. Of course, we grown-ups know that such men in real life will be suffocating and unbearable to live with, but hey, it’s all good and fun fantasy to enjoy for a little while.
VC Andrews’ readers will eventually grow up, become wiser, and realize that there is no guy out there as dumb as Christopher Dollanganger who will forever put us on a pedestal and beg us to let him kiss our toes. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to sit down and revisit that secret place VC Andrews offers, let one’s hair down, and just enjoy the whole lurid fun that is Petals on the Wind. Oh, to be loved like Cathy, and to be given the chance to be so selfish and self-indulgent! Sometimes – and I am so afraid to confess this – I can’t help wishing a little that a man like Christopher Dollanganger does exist, if only for a while. Sometimes. And then I have to grow up again to face life in all its monotonous humdrum glory, and this book will be kept hidden in the drawer, to be taken out again the next time I want a pleasant little vicarious adventure of a lifetime.