Friday, May 20, 2011

Petals on the Wind, Part One: The Great White Flight

Welcome, dear readers, to Petals on the Wind, already known in my house as “the book where I get to break out all my Black Swan macros.”   Nah, I kid.  Not about the macros—I’ve been stockpiling those since I started putting the site together in sole anticipation of this book—but any other comparison to Black Swan will be purely coincidental.  I haven’t even seen that movie, but I am told it is a probing if flawed analogy for an eating disorder.  This book on the other hand, is an analogy for . . .  well, no, there’s no room for analogy in Andrewsland.

I have always said that the great thing about the whole Dollanganger series is that while the characters in Flowers in the Attic can be seen as somewhat sympathetic, every problem they have in their life thereafter is no one’s fault but their own.  All three of the remaining Dollangangers go about gleefully fucking up their lives and personal relationships, and it’s hard to feel a moment’s pity for any of them.  Even Carrie, who ends up being the sacrificial lamb, would have fared far better in the company of people who took two seconds to consider that maybe having your mother lock you up for three years, being poisoned, starved, and sun-deprived, watching your identical twin die, and being a first-hand witness to the blatantly obvious sexual tension between your two older siblings—well, all of that MIGHT REQUIRE SOME PROFESSIONAL COUNSELLING.  But no.  It’s Andrewsland.  Modern psychology need not apply, unless it comes in the form of Our Heroine being wrongfully committed by her dastardly stepmother.

Mostly, though, this is the book where my sympathies swung to the grandmother.  Plainly, she was a woman possessed of a prophetic soul whose only crime was trying to save the world from these horrible people.  Because by the end of this one, Cathy lays waste to everyone and everything in her whole life, and it’s all her own fault.  As my own dear grandmother (who never once locked me in an attic) used to say, that child is too dumb to cook quick-grits.

Trust me.  In the South, them's fightin' words.

But enough of that!  Let's get this party started!

Not gonna lie, folks: the first three chapters descend pretty quickly into "boring but necessary filler," and I know we're all just dying to get to the part where Cathy bleeds on stage, so I'll try to sum up as much as possible:

Unlike Flowers in the Attic, we know that Petals on the Wind cannot be based on a true story because the first thing that happens is that a black woman boards a bus in South Carolina in 1960.  Get a good look.  There will not be another black character in any Andrew’s novel for another fifteen books. Andrewsland is a white, white, white, white place.

Having just escaped the attic of stately Foxworth Hall, Cathy, Chris, and the surviving, annoying twin Carrie are already on this bus, bound for Florida.  Cathy is her usual smoldering heap of rage. She is quite rightly furious at the death by poisoning of her small brother Cory by their mother, even though, if you read the last book, the kid wasn't much of a loss. But Cathy was attached to the kid, and Carrie's emotional and physical health has deteriorated since her twin's death, so Cathy vows revenge in the grand Erica Kane manner.

Damn you, Momma!  I hope Foxworth Hall burns to the ground! I hope you never sleep another comfortable night in that grand swan bed, not ever again! I hope your young husband finds a mistress younger and more beautiful than you! I hope he gives you the hell you deserve! 

Cathy's thoughts at this time bear mentioning in their entirety, because she just gave away the entire plot. On the third page.

Since I started this project, the burning question I keep finding, with varying levels of frustration and fury, is "How the hell did these books ever get published when Andrews basically breaks every rule of Fiction-Writing 101?"  My guess is that it part of it lies in this pervasive, first-person narration.  First-person gives a sense of both immediacy and veracity--someone is telling this story to you.  Instinctively, we know it's rude to call someone a liar to their face, and we certain don't want to put ourselves in the position of doubting anyone's feelings.  That the narrator also lays things out for us (telling-not-showing) makes it even easier not to doubt her veracity because we don't have to think very hard about it.  She's telling us what we should think.  Her reactions become our reactions.  It's also why the books read so fast; there's no real interpretation required.  The writer tells us not only what's happening, but how we should feel about what's happening.  All in all, it's a lot like literary Stockholm syndrome.

But back to the story: Carrie, already sickly from arsenic poisoning in the first book, suddenly becomes violently ill. With no money, and faced with the prospect of being thrown off the bus, the children are rescued by Henrietta Beech, the black woman from the first scene. "Henny" Beech is a deaf-mute, but she is also the housekeeper of a successful doctor, to whom she offers to take the children.

This is how V.C. Andrews' world works: no one assumes these kids might have parents. No one considers that whisking unaccompanied minors off a bus to parts unknown without first alerting the proper authorities is, in fact, felony kidnapping. And the kids themselves do not consider asking the bus driver to drop them off at the ER, but instead go off in the company of a woman they do not know on the doubtful premise that the woman happens to knows a doctor. What kind of doctor? What if he's just an OBGYN who can't do shit for arsenic poisoning? Why doesn't Chris, who knows his sister has arsenic poisoning and who has been studying to be a doctor, bring this up? SO MANY QUESTIONS.

Henny takes the kids to her employer's home, and the first thing the good doctor does is stare at Cathy's tits. Boom. Right out of the gate. After a curt examination of the unconscious Carrie, he tells Cathy and Chris that it will take at least two weeks to determine what is wrong with their sister. How he determines this is anyone's guess. In his first adult act since he was introduced, the doctor, whose name is Paul Sheffield, tells the kids that if they want their sister to live, they'd better spill the beans.

Chris is reluctant to implicate their mother in murder . . . which is perfectly okay because Cathy is more than willing to spend two pages shouting out the backstory.  Like, all the backstory.  Starting with the death of their father and basically recapping the last book.  However, in some misguided loyalty to Chris, she omits that there was a fourth child, Carrie's twin Cory, in order to avoid implicating their mother in his death. Why? No idea. Considering Cathy's stated intentions of ruining her mother's life, you'd think that getting the woman convicted for murder would be the simplest way to go.

Dr. Paul quite rightly assumes that these kids need medical care and a legal guardian, and then negates all these aforementioned ethics by offering to let the children stay with him. Um. Yeah. That's not creepy at all.  Even Chris catches this:

"I really don't like the way he keeps looking at you, Cathy. His eyes follow you about all the time. Here you are, so available, and men his age find girls your age irresistible."

"Chris, he's just lonely. Maybe he only watches me because there isn't anything else as interesting to watch as me." But how fascinating to know that men of forty were susceptible to girls of fifteen. How wonderful to wield over them the power that my mother had. 

One: Chris, you're projecting.  Two: Yes, Cathy, some men of forty are susceptible to girls of fifteen.  We call those men "pedophiles" and avoid them socially.  Three . . . there isn't anything as interesting to watch as you?  My God, girlfriend, back away from your own navel before you fall in or something.

The doctor lavishes money and attention on the three children, treating them as if they were his own (except for the occasional sidelong look at Cathy's cleavage, but it's a V.C. Andrews' novel--par for the course) and plans to get Chris into pre-med school so that he can fulfil his dream of being a real generic doctor who specializes in nothing, just like Dr. Paul. Cathy plans to audition for a dance troupe, so that she can fulfil her dream of being a prima ballerina which will somehow help her get revenge on her mother.  And Carrie is enrolled in a private girls' school, so she can fulfil her dream of . . . I have no idea what Carrie wants out of life. Possibly the author doesn't know, either. 

Mostly, however, these scene just sort of piddle around the house while the kids get readjusted to life in the big world outside the attic.  Carrie in particular thrives under Dr. Paul's care--or at least so Cathy tells us; it's like occasionally Cathy remembers that she has a younger sister.  Then again, a lot of the time Cathy needs to be reminded that there are more interesting things than herself in the world.  Chris begins an internship at Dr. Paul's hospital, because there's nothing like studying alone in an attic from 19th century medical books for three years to prepare you for the rigors of medical work, and Cathy spends much of her time with Henny, learning how to sew on buttons and bake biscuits and . . . oh, Cathy, honey, no.  Must we?  Must we really?

Sigh.  Summon the block-quote:

[Henny] was the first black person I'd known, and though at first I'd felt ill-at-ease with her and a little afraid of her, two weeks of intimacy had taught me much. She was just another human being of another race and color, with the same sensitivities, hopes and fears we all had.


On the up-side, Henny--possibly because of her lack of dialogue and development--comes off as the only genuinely kind, sane, concerned character in the entire book.  I nearly said "the most well-rounded" character except that for the first few chapters, whenever we are not listening to Cathy describe how very, very black Henny is, we're listening to her describe how very, very fat Henny is.  How fat?  So fat, y'all.  I'm actually kind of glad Henny doesn't talk because I'm pretty sure Andrews would try to write out her dialect and she's saving all the really bad dialect for Heaven.

There is a sort of tenuous plot point about dragging Mommy Dearest down from Virginia to see if she wants anything to do with her kids, in order that Dr. Paul can start the proceedings to adopt them.  But then that gets glossed over in favor of a SHOPPING MONTAGE!

And you know what?  That's okay.  Play to your strengths, Andrews.  You might not have the talent or the commitment to write a powerful,  riveting courtroom custody drama, but by God you are pretty good at detailing wild consumerist orgies.

Cathy of course is obsessed with Mommy Dearest to the point where she has committed to memory every item in her mother's vanity and proceeds to buy them all ("even her kind of wrinkle cream, plus a mud pack for firming").  And poor tiny Carrie, with her great big honkin' lollipop head, is unable to find children's clothing in her size and pitches a temper tantrum in the middle of Macy's, until Dr. Paul pacifies her by telling her that they will get a sewing machine so that Cathy can custom-make her clothes.  Carrie, in a gleeful fit of disloyalty, tells him that Cathy has no skills other than dancing.

Chris's side of the shopping montage is not shown because no one gives a shit what dudes wear.

Mommy Dearest's court appearance is a non-issue, since of course she doesn't show up, leaving Dr. Paul in sole custody of the Dollanganger Trio, two of whom he plans to ship off immediately to out-of-town schools.  Cathy, however, will be attending a high school right in town, so that she can be at home in the evenings.  Hm.  I wonder why that is . . .

And I think this is a good place to pause.  Like I said: mostly filler.  Up next!  The infamous feet-bleeding scene!  All three of Cathy's future husbands come onto the scene at once!  Chris tries to slip his sister the bone yet again!


  1. Can I just say how freaking much I love these? Hi. Larious.

    I have heard of the foot-bleeding! I can't wait to see your explanation of it so I don't have to read it. :D

  2. I can't wait for the next bit. (Also, I love Carrie mentioning that Cathy can't do anything but dance. Apparently Carrie is aware that her sister can't think.)

    Also, Paul Sheffield needs to go die in a fire, because he is majorly creepy.

    It makes me sad to admit this, but Cathy's awareness that black people are--GASP!--people would have been majorly revolutionary for the time this was written.

  3. Wait... this is the 70s, not the 50s, I think. We really did know that black folks were actual people back then in the dark ages. Maybe not if you'd been living in an attic and were dumb as a post, though.

    1. Yes it was written in like 1979/1980, but it was supposed to take place in like 1960/1961 so it was still a big deal.

  4. I love your reviews, the only thing is you are completley forgetting this was made in the 1950's.

  5. I think it was the 60's but I'm not sure.
    Weirdly, I remembered Dr. Paul being Henny's son and also black. So that wasn't the case?

    1. Henny called Paul her "doctor son" because she lived with him and took care of him.
      When I was a kid I also thought he was black and it was years before I realized that they weren't actually related.

  6. Sigh. I liked the paragraph in which you mention the tension between what Cathy SAYS she feels and what we as the reader know to be the REAL story. The thing is VC took the time to subtly contradict Cathy's version of reality. Its no accident. The least subtle? Clearly Julian is an abusive pedaphile but... Cathy says its all her fault. In the third book you learn that she lied in her narrative because she is raising the children from all her disasterous relationships and dosen't want to dis their fathers to much or they might get poor self esteem. SO, VC knew what she was doing.

  7. “Unlike Flowers in the Attic, we know that Petals on the Wind cannot be based on a true story because the first thing that happens is that a black woman boards a bus in South Carolina in 1960.”

    I'm puzzled by this passage. Are you saying that black people weren't allowed to ride public buses in the South in 1960?

    Because according to my research, they were. They were just required (unfortunately) to sit in the back, separate from the white passengers. (I don't remember where Henny sits after she boards the bus.)

    This was one of the things the Freedom Riders of 1961 challenged - “segregated seating” on public transportation (specifically on interstate buses):

    If you know of something about this subject that contradicts what I'm saying, I'm open to hearing it. :)

    1. I still have the original draft for this section, and in it, the line was definitely about how we knew this wasn't a true story because Henny wasn't at the back of the bus, not that she was on the bus at all. It even had a comment about how Andrews' characters live in a vacuum where you can set a book in the 60s and somehow avoid mentioning the Civil Rights movement and the moon landing. I don't remember why I changed it for the final version. This inaccuracy is really inexcusable, especially in light of the fact that I live in Alabama, where this is a major historical event.

      At any rate, you're quite correct! I'm running late with this week's post due to formatting problems, but as soon as I get that post squared away, I'll go back and fix this one. Thanks for pointing it out!

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