Flowers in the Attic was on Lifetime last night. Again: Flowers in the Attic. Lifetime! Lest we settle here (of course, if it were on, it would be on Lifetime) - the television adaptation of V.C. Andrews' notorious cult-classic book from 1979 stars Heather Graham as Corrine; Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper [sorry]) as Cathy, and Ellen Burstyn as Olivia.
A background, and the controversy: Flowers in the Attic opens with the Dollangangers, a charmed family of two parents and four children who are all blond-haired and blue-eyed. The father, Chris Sr., is killed in an accident, and the mother, Corrine, discovers that they've been too busy being beautiful and taxing mental acuity with alliterative names to learn a job skill or to save money, so she moves herself and the brood (Chris Jr., Cathy, and twins Cory and Carrie) back to the mansion of her wealthy, estranged parents, Olivia and Malcolm.
During the reconciliation, the children must be kept secret in the attic. Corrine's parents are fanatically religious, and had disowned her upon her marriage as Chris Sr. was (gasp!) her half-uncle; but, it's totally cool, once Malcolm - already ill - kicks the bucket, Corrine will inherit his massive fortune... and the children just have to wait. Yet, despite her assurances, they spend months, then years, locked in the attic; Olivia brings sporadic meals and regular hissings of their sinfulness. A Blue Lagoon situation develops between Chris Jr. and Cathy, and there's betrayal, incest, and murder to come.
It led to three sequels by Andrews and one prequel by ghostwriter Andrew Niederman, as well as spawning a series - nineteen, at last count; a crapload, literally - of "Gothic horror" novels under the V.C. Andrews name at the auspices of her estate when she passed away. In what was sure to be a fustercluck littered with crumpled, wine-stained Flowers in the Attic hate-watch BINGOs, Lifetime strategically targets the demographic of women of a certain age: this time, mine.
I read a lot growing up, and in the fierce, without-qualifiers way that one loves things from one's childhood, I love all the Young Adult (YA) series of that time: Little House on the Prairie, Sweet Valley, Baby-Sitters Club, Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Drew. And, yes, Flowers in the Attic, the pages turning by themselves from titillated pre-teen whispers.
Yet, when faced with the exhumation and postmortem of my girlhood on HDTV in the now-somewhat-inbred, golden good looks of the "Dolls," I remember all the characters whom I could relate to, in the most surface and skin-deep way possible: Jade Wu (Sweet Valley High #50, Out of Reach), a talented dancer ashamed of her family's laundry business, and Claudia Kishi, the fashion-forward candy-hoarder and VP of the BSC, who would live in Brooklyn today.
Speaking of dirty linens and Brooklyn - there's also the Chinese launderer with his calligraphy tickets and lychee nuts in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, to whom Francie takes her father's shirts.
These days, there are lists compiling books that feature Asian/Asian-American characters. But, as a girl, I didn't want to read a book inevitably titled with "Hiroshima" or a Chinese zodiac animal to find myself; I wanted to show up on Prince Edward Island or in Stoneybrook.
For "girls of color," that's not how history or literature works. I had "very special episodes" in English-language teen fiction or, on the Chinese-language side, crybabies with blonde hair who nevertheless live in Japan (shoujo manga in perpetuity) or concubines, dupes, and fox-devils (Romance of the Three Kingdoms). Little wonder why Guo Jingming, China's wealthiest writer, known for his YA novels, is my contemporary.
I'm uncertain how many girls ages 12-to-16 tuned into Lifetime just for Flowers in the Attic. It lacks the literary gravitas of Austen or, say, Little Women, which some, for book reports, may watch the film in lieu of reading. ("Despite exchanging big gobs of spit by the fence, Jo decided she and Laurie wouldn't suit, because his destiny was to be Batman.") I watched it for nostalgia, as likely did 90% of the viewers - the other 10%, prurient passers-by. (PS So grim. Up the camp, Lifetime!)
From the Hunger Games' "Rue is black?!" uproar, both children and adults read with a default set for race: white unless otherwise indicated, and Hollywood encourages this. Yet of all the teenage anxieties and angst Flowers in the Attic oh-so-purple-y uncovers, it's not a book about race. (Perhaps more a social-economic commentary: Andrews & Ghostwriters never did meet a rags-to-riches plotline they didn't love.)
How to make candy with maple sugar and snow, all about Type I diabetes, and that a boy totally digs you though he dips your pigtails in ink: I've consciously retained this, and more, from the thousands of hours I spent with YA books. Combined with a useless recall of pop lyrics, it's probably why I've exhausted my full potential. I question what else I've learned.
Previously published on The Wang Post.