Since posting the Prelude, the If There Be Thorns fans came out of the woodwork. I'm so pleased, but also slightly relieved, because I found myself saying uncharacteristically positive things about this book and I was afraid people would think the Andrews estate had sent me a nasty letter or something. I legitimately try to laud the positive aspects of the books when I stumble across them, but Petals was a long, hard slog for me and by the time I reached that fuck-you-I-ain't-gotta-explain-shit ending, I'd pretty much given up on redemption.
Probably a much bigger issue is that the word "crazy" as applied to mental illness gets bantered around very casually. There is nothing like labeling a character generic "crazy" to make me start analyzing. While I do have some background in psychology, I am not qualified or licensed to make diagnoses, even for fictional characters. If I make a giant mistake with the psych stuff, please call me out on it.
Our story begins with a particularly rambling prologue by Cathy, so we're going to skip it and get to the goods.
Jory Sheffield, age fourteen, is on his way home from school. His house is at the end of a long winding road with no other houses save for an abandoned mansion next door. The road is long enough for Jory to hash out the entire backstory of the past seven years.
We get the Official Fiction of Jory's genealogy: his mother's parents both died when she was sixteen. She and her sister Carrie were adopted by Paul Sheffield. Jory's real father was a world-famous ballet star who died before Jory was born. His mother later married Paul Sheffield, with whom she had Bart. When Paul died, Cathy married his younger brother Chris. Man, their fake family tree is almost as confusing as their real one.
Every summer, the family travels back East to visit Jory's biological grandmother, Madame Marisha--yay! Madame's still kicking!--as well as Chris's mother, who lives in a mental hospital. They also visit the graves of Cathy's dead family and her late husbands.
Jory has a few warm memories of Bart Winslow, so I guess he's successfully repressed the whole walking-in-on-the-aftermath-of-his-mom's rape thing, but he's never made the connection between Bart Winslow and the fact that his brother's named Bart Winslow Sheffield. I'm more interested that he seems to have forgotten that Chris is Cathy's biological brother, even though he would have been seven when they married and it was pretty well established until then that Chris was Cathy's brother rather than Paul's. This is pointing to psychological subterfuge of My Sweet Audrina levels.
Jory arrives home where the family housekeeper Emma is preparing dinner. I like to imagine that Emma is the highest-paid domestic worker in California, with full health and dental and paid holidays and a personal vehicle--anything to keep her from going to the papers. Why else would Cathy even need a maid? She still works at a ballet studio, but she's barely there half the time, and the kids are too old for a nanny. Mark my words. Emma can bring it all down like a house of cards.
Jory hears ballet music drifting from upstairs. Jory's caught his mother dancing alone in the attic before now, and she's always made it out to be some big, dark secret to be kept from Dad. He starts upstairs to warn her, but Chris arrives home unexpectedly early. He, too, hears the music from the attic and goes up to investigate. Jory decides that this time, he's just going to let Dad catch her so that he can finally hear Mom's explanation.
Again, I'm kind of digging this. This is a totally teenage thing to do. I'm a little uncomfortable that the stairs to the attic is, again, located at the back of a closet, meaning that they actually went looking for a house with that arrangement or they had it specially built. I don't know which option is more distressing.
Anyway Cathy is pirouetting about the attic, saying "Begone!" to the dustmotes, when Chris walks in. Cathy's all "oh you're home early" but Chris immediately notices the two twin beds made up in a corner, along with a picnic hamper just like the one the grandmother used. The junk's been cleared, and there are pictures of flowers hanging on the walls. Jory is stunned by how pissed Dad is getting over a picnic basket but we know, don't we? Mwah-ha-ha.
Cathy says she doesn't know how the beds or the basket got there. Again, it's hard to tell which implication is more disturbing: that Cathy really did set up all this stuff while in a fugue state, or that she was entirely conscious and is now trying to lie her way out of it. She tells Chris that the last thing she remembers was having a nightmare about "the grandmother." Chris reassures her that the grandmother is dead and Foxworth Hall is long gone. Jory's confused, since he doesn't understand what they could possibly be talking about. WHAT COULD IT MEAN???
Cathy starts to calm a little, and she and Chris dance a bit to a jarringly sprightly Sinatra tune. Chris is still such a bad dancer that Jory's embarrassed for him.
As they dance, Cathy and Chris have one of those convenient conversations that these books are so fond of, relating how they fell in love when Cathy was only fourteen. Again, Jory's confused: as far as he knows, his parents didn't even know one another when Cathy was fourteen. WHAT COULD IT MEAN???
Chris accuses Cathy of setting the beds in the attic so that she can hide Bart ad Jory from the fallout of their "secret" ever being exposed, which wtf, man, you live in a split-level, that plan will work for all of five minutes after the cops get a search warrant. He uses the word "secret," too. Like, constantly. More than anyone who ever wanted to actually keep a secret would use the word "secret."
He forces Cathy to verbally swear that if something ever happens to him and she wants to get remarried, she won't try to stow the kids in the attic, which, again, does not seem like a scenario that's likely to happen. He's kind of a dick about it, too, but this is Chris.
And then Chris makes a sweeping dramatic gesture of hurling the picnic basket out the attic window because why ever not.
Jory gets angry at Chris for thinking his mother would ever do such a think, but he's also a little scared, since the two of them are so obviously hiding something and he feels like he never really knew them before now.
WHAT COULD IT MEAN???
Poor Jory. Stuck up here with all this exposition. Could be worse, Jory. At least they didn't make out while you were eavesdropping.*
On that ominous note the story jumps to the next day, where Bart, bored and grumbling, is listening to Jory read from the Bible as they plant pansy seeds in honor of Poor Dead Carrie and Cory. This is totally healthy and normal and should not be questioned. But seriously, it reads like they're conducting a small funeral. Bart wonders to himself why there are so many dead people in his immediate family.
Also: Cathy, I understand that pansies are one of the few flowers that can be red, purple, or yellow, and so can represent your dead siblings' favorite colors, but did you have to also pick the flower that looks most like it has an enormous oversize head on a puny little stem?
We learn pretty quickly that Bart suffers from a condition he describes as "nerve endings [that don't] go all the way to the surface of [his] skin." Bart is unable to feel pain. On top of this, he's a clumsy fuck, so he's constantly falling down or falling off things, then getting up and going on, totally unaware of how badly he's hurt himself.
I have theories. Oh yes. I have theories.
- There is a real disorder called congenital analgesia. While it has nothing to do with nerves not going to the surface of your skin, Bart's nine and maybe we can excuse him for not understanding the specifics.
- Analgesia is an incredibly rare and dangerous disease. Forgive me for getting graphic, but children with this disorder have chewed off the tips of their own tongues because they cannot feel what they're doing to themselves. This is not a physical quirk like colorblindness, which is how this book is playing it off. This is a disease that would impair Bart's ability to have a normal life.
- Actual Medical Doctor Chris should know this, but apparently has not taken any precautions.
- There is another explanation. Some people on the autism spectrum have expressed a variation of this disorder. It's not so much that they cannot physically feel pain, it's more that they do not know how to respond to pain and may seem somewhat indifferent to the sensation.
- Bart displays a lot of traits that seem very much like Asperger syndrome.
- I do not think Andrews intended an Asperger connection in this book. Asperger syndrome was formally acknowledged as a separate disorder in 1981, the year this book was published. Before then, it was assumed to be a variant of ASD.
- Autism, on the other hand, was part of public awareness by the 1960s and was generally associated with "refrigerator mothers"--cold, distant mothers caught up in their own obsessions who made only mechanical, token gestures to caring for their children's emotional needs.
- WHO MATCHES THAT DESCRIPTION?
|Four guesses, no prizes.|
Every day, the two brothers climb the wall that separates their modest home from the Scooby Doo-esque mansion next door, although even Bart points out that letting an accident-prone little boy with no ability to gauge pain climb a fourteen-foot wall is a disaster waiting to happen. A lot of their summer is spent exploring the old mansion, so they're more than a little dismayed to see workers crawling all over the place, scraping down the paint and tiling the roof.
One of the workmen tells the kids to clear off. "Some rich dame has bought this place and she won't want kids hanging around. And don't you think you can get by with anything because she's an old lady living alone. She's bringing servants with her." I'm calling it: this workman is the blue-collar brother of the expository cop in Flowers in the Attic.
Both boys hope that the new neighbors will have lots of kids for them to play with, with Jory specifically wishing for a house full of teenage girls. Oh Jory, you are your father's son, except that your interest in teenage girls is completely appropriate. Both of them also wonder how their parents, who enjoy their "privacy," are going to take having someone right next door. Cathy and Chris are not pleased at the news and have no intention of getting to know the new neighbors, whoever they are.
There is a vague whiff that Chris and Cathy have also forbidden the boys to bring friends over, as Bart wonders "why they didn't want friends comin to our house." Jory interprets this as Cathy and Chris being so in love after all these years that they prefer to isolate themselves, which is super red-flag for a unhealthy codependent relationship. To its credit, though, this book doesn't try to present Cathy and Chris as anything but super unhealthy.
Only a few days into summer break, the boys are already wondering what they're going to do all summer without the house next door, although Bart perks up when his parents announce that they're taking him to Disneyland for his upcoming birthday. He's less pleased when he hears that he will only get Disneyland after the annual trip back to South Carolina to visit "ole graves and ole grandmothers."
Mom berates him, telling him that one of those "ole graves" belongs to Bart's own father (meaning Paul) and that he should show a little respect. And then Bart innocently asks Cathy why the photographs she has of her father look so much like Chris and Cathy's like
But there's an issue to be made here: Bart has been shown to have a preoccupation with death that is presented as a symptom of his mental illness. He dwells on the idea of death and imagines what it would be like to be dead in a graphic way that veers uncomfortably close to suicidal ideation. Bart's berated for being morbid, yet the whole family seems to sanction a preoccupation with death. They're cool with planting little memorial gardens in the backyard for Poor Dead Carrie and Cory and dragging the kids to graveyards for two weeks every summer to the point that even the non-neurotic Jory mentions that graveyard-hopping is a significant portion of the trip.
But Cathy notices nothing, because Cathy has a new obsession. One of her ballet students was in a car accident and is in the hospital, close to death. If she dies, Mom wants to adopt the student's two-year-old daughter Cindy. She pleads with Chris, who ignores her distress as he makes noncommittal grunts from behind his newspaper. I'm not even exaggerating: he stonewalls her with the sports page. Hey, Chris, remember all those times you called Cathy the other half of your soul and you'd never love another woman? How's all that looking in the mirror these days?
At last, renovations to the House Next Door are complete. The boys are thrilled when a long black limousine arrives at the gates and delivers a mysterious lady in black with a veil concealing her head and face. They wonder if she is a grieving widow, or perhaps even "a Moslem." Frankly I'm surprised and a little excited that the book realizes Muslims exist. It's almost like diversity!
Once the Woman in Black goes inside, Jory wants to stay up on the wall and admire the beautiful sunset: "Have you ever seen more glorious colors? Colors are like music to me. I can hear them singing." But Bart's distracted by a caterpillar crawling near his shoe: "Jus' one more inch and somethin ugly is gonna get it!" Man I love Bart. He's ugly but by God he's honest.
Bart and Jory slip over the wall, hoping to get another look at the woman in black. Jory climbs a tree and peeks through a window to find her at dinner, all alone, picking at her food. Jory is struck by the image: a lonely woman surrounded by luxury, unable to enjoy even a meal.
Suddenly the woman in black looks up. Her face is covered with "jagged rows of scars"--yet beneath them, Jory can see that she was once as beautiful as his mother. She yells that she's going to call the police, and the boys run for home.
Seeing Jory clearly disheveled and shaken, Mom asks him what's up. Jory denies everything, but throws his arms around her, burying his face "against the softness of her breast." OH JEEZ ARE WE GOING TO GO THROUGH THIS AGAIN? At least Jory acknowledges that he's "too old" for it, but he's rattled by the idea that looking at the face of the woman in black is like seeing what his mother might look like "thirty years from now, if she lived long enough to be ravaged by time."
There's so much characterization stuff going on in this section and I feel I've skimmed a lot in order to get the bare bones of the premise established, but fear not! This is only the beginning!
Up next: the return of John "Maid-Humper" Amos! More animal cruelty! Cathy is the absolute worst!
* Note from the Future: before this is over they will indeed make out while Jory's eavesdropping.