Not being of generation that was first scarred by this masterpiece circa seventh grade, I was blissfully unaware of its existence until I began working at a bookstore. Though I've since moved on from the bookstore, my heart and reading tastes remain in its hands. By this, I of course mean that my coworkers still reach out with the giddy, "This is horrible, you have to read/watch/listen to it!" sentiment that can only be exchanged with true passion by the handful of overly well-read introverts populating the bookstore that still holds a special place in my heart. Though not intending to first experience this infamous seclusion novel in the midst of my first (and only?) quarantine, the combined timing of erratic work schedules, USPS's lovable unreliability, and a slight concern for the overall health factors involved in sending a used book across the country aligned the stars so correctly that I began this book right before finding myself stuck at home for an undetermined amount of time.
Now, we all know why we're here. The whispered, taboo, infamous incest factor of this book is THE primary reason why this haunted a generation of adolescents, closely followed by the endless string of horrible things that happen to this unfortunate group of four (ish) children. This book is one terrible event after another, glorified incestuous relationships aside. These poor kids do not catch a break from the beginning to end, and neither will the reader. And for obvious reasons, this will not be a spoiler free review. After all, you should know what you're getting into with this one.
Right off the bat, the reader, even without any previous knowledge, has right to be suspicious. The Dollanganger's are too perfect, called "The Dresdan Dolls" by the neighborhood, known for their beautiful family and life without want. This all comes to a bracing halt when, within the first chapter, aptly titled "Goodbye, Daddy", the remaining Dollanganger's learn that their father has died in a terrible accident on the day of his birthday celebration, as the family is surrounded by eager (and apparently famished) guests. Not only has he died in a terrible accident, but the punches keep rolling. Mr. Dollanganger was hit by a drunk driver, but, well, I might as well just quote the whole passage.
"There was a motorist driving a blue Ford weaving in and out of the lefthand lane, apparently drunk, and he crashed head-on into your husband's car. But it seems your husband must have seen the accident coming, for he swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but a piece of machinery had fallen from another car, or truck, and this kept him from completing his correct defensive driving maneuver, which would have saved his life. But as it was, your husband's much heavier car turned over several times, and still he might have survived, but an oncoming truck, unable to stop, crashed into his car, and again the Cadillac spun over...and then...it caught on fire."
Whew. In a room full of eager party guests, including the deceased's four young children, this cop is sparing absolutely no detail in a description that leads one to believe, more than once, that there might still be a chance that the poor man survived. But ultimately, we find that he died a graphic, fiery death, and later on, that his belongings were thrown so far from the car that they could be saved in order for the now-widowed wife to identify. Some small part of me is now wondering if one Lemony Snicket was once traumatized by this very book, and thus created his own series based on the sole propulsion of continuous unfortunate events.
As you can imagine, the grief doesn't stop here. The four children are snuck from their home with few belongings in the middle of the night and taken to live in the sequestered connected attic/bedroom of their estranged grandmother's house. The blows keep coming; they are given a religiously fanatic set of stern rules, and to add insult to injury, find that their grandmother's strict nature is in part due to their mother's relationship and subsequent marriage with...her own half-uncle. Congratulations kids, you're the product of a incestuous marriage and your grandmother believes that you truly are the Devil's spawn!
The Dollanganger children (and really, once you find out that this is a chosen rather than given last name, you wonder why the family would chose one so hard to spell, but this is again the same family that actively practiced incest, so...) are promised that it will only be a few nights in this locked room before their mother wins back the affection of their equally estranged grandfather and regains her place in his rich will, but, as luck would have it, "a few days" turns into three whole years. These three years include starvation, desperate grasps for escape, the death of the youngest boy, Cory, a brother-sister sex scene, the eating of salt-and-peppered mice, and borderline torture in the forms of willow switch whipping, refusal of food, the grandmother sneaking into the room at night to cover Cathy's hair in tar, and as we find out near the conclusion, slow poisoning. The mother visits less and less, cannot bear to look at the deteriorating health of her youngest children, and dazzles them and herself with expensive gifts and an expensive, youthful husband who knows nothing of her incestuous first marriage and the four resulting children.
Ultimately, the three remaining Dollanganger children escape their prison with what little they can grab on their way out. Before the big escape, they realize that the grandfather has been dead for a year already, that the mother has been lying and manipulating and has now escaped to a brilliant future with her new husband while slowly poisoning her once beautiful children. The narrator, the eldest girl Cathy, maintains that they struggled and then survived, and that they were made better for it, but one must wonder what planet this poor girl was living on, and how much the three years in the attic addled her brain.
I will admit that this is an interesting novel in terms of moral conundrums. Most of the novel is spent believing that the grandmother is the real villain, that despite the mother's shortcomings, she is still partially the victim if not one making immature decisions. However, by the end of the book, the mother is as much the villain as the grandmother. The interesting component to this is that Andrews is most definitely advocating for the morality of the mother's marriage to her half-uncle, making it broadly clear that this factor is not what makes her a horrible person.
Further interesting, if this can be the right word, is the style very specific to Andrews' morally ambiguous writing. Everything seems to have sexual connotations, every description, most every interaction between the two eldest children, even the accounts of the youngest children. The dialogue is awkward, with twelve year old Cathy and fourteen year old Chris speaking like Victorian novelists on a daily basis. Carrie, the youngest girl, is annoying even from the pages of the book, screaming constantly about what she does and doesn't want. Given, this is no ideal situation, but I'm willing to bet that about 90% of her dialogue is only this, whereas Cory, the youngest boy, hardly speaks at all. Perhaps it is fitting that these are the Dollanganger's, the Dresdan Dolls, as they seem to be merely playthings for the twisted imagination of one V.C. Andrews.