My book club has gone through a string of heavy, rewarding and highly-involving books; when it was time to pick the next title, we all were craving something lighter. We still wanted to have the next plot somehow connect to the one that came before it — Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara, was, amongst other things, about the relationship between brothers and sisters, so when someone brought up Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews we laughingly agreed that it would be a good fit. We decided not only to read the book, but to also watch the film adaptation. Only two of us had read the novel before (neither Heather nor Melissa could really remember the details), and none of us had seen the movie, so we thought it would be a perfect departure from our reading record, which has included such titles as The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company by Brian Hall, both densely-written books.
You just try and tell me that my book club isn’t the best ever.
I’m too young to recall the hoopla surrounding the book when it was first published in 1979, but I distinctly remember seeing copies for sale in the book aisle of ShopRite when I was a kid; its cover art completely drew me in, even though I had no idea what the story was about. There was an illustration of a house, and in one of the topmost windows was a cut-out — as if it were an actual window — through which I could see the picture of a blonde girl. (Honestly, I thought it was the coolest thing.) When I flipped open the cover, the second page revealed the blonde girl surrounded by a blond boy and two younger golden-haired children. Behind the four of them was an ominous figure approaching them from out of the shadows; all five had pallid skin, leading me to think at that young age that this was a scary book, possibly about vampires.
I was wrong, on both counts.
There is nothing scary about Flowers in the Attic, except perhaps Andrews’s unnecessarily abundant use of punctuation and her inability to write not only realistic dialogue, but a believable narrative in general. Here’s an example from the very beginning:
“Yes, Momma, I know exactly what you mean,” Christopher piped up. “You did something of which your father disapproved, and so, even though you were included in his will, he had his lawyer write you out instead of thinking twice, and now you won’t inherit any of his worldly goods when he passes on to the great beyond.” He grinned, pleased with himself for knowing more than me. He always had the answers to everything. He had his nose in a book whenever he was in the house. Outside, under the sky, he was just as wild, just as mean as any other kid on the block. But indoors, away from the television, my older brother was a bookworm!
For those of you are unaware, Flowers in the Attic is the story of the four Dollanganger children: Chris, Cathy, Cory and Carrie. At the beginning of the novel, which spans three years, Chris and Cathy are fourteen and twelve respectively, while fraternal twins Cory and Carrie are five. When their father is killed in a car accident, their mother Corrine moves them to her childhood home in Virginia, which isn’t so much a house as it is a sprawling mansion. Upon arrival, the children learn that Corrine’s parents have exiled her from the family for marrying her half-uncle; in order to get back into her father’s good graces — as well as to lay claim to her inheritance — Corrine conspires with her mother to hide the four children in an unused portion of the manor while she sweet-talks her father. The novel gets its title from the playground the Dollanganger children make for themselves beneath the mansion’s eaves, since they are locked into a room with attic access and are forbidden to leave. Over the years, Cathy and Chris become increasingly attracted to each other, even going so far as to, um, consummate their relationship.
It would be a flat-out lie to say that any of us enjoyed the book, though I do know that we all burned through it; Amanda says it was because she just wanted it to be over already. Even so, we were determined to watch the movie version when we met up at Heather’s adorable new house.
Before we assembled ourselves onto the vast sofa (which we kept on referring to as “the party raft”), we had to get down to the serious business of food prep. After all, in our book club, what we eat is just as important as what we read… one could even argue that it’s even more important, in some cases.
While Stephanie rolled out the crust for two pizzas (rosemary, red potato and smoked cheese; eggplant and goat cheese), Heather fried up some squash fritters, which she served alongside a zingy mustard dipping sauce. Darlington had baked some scallion-and-cheese biscuits, Melissa had made a mixed-berry pie and Amanda provided the drinks. Earlier in the week I had volunteered to make a mac and cheese because I had a craving, but I had been hankering for a specific version: my aunt’s.
(My aunt Hasmig is my father’s sister, meaning she spends her time hanging out on the Lebanese and Armenian branches of my family tree. The thing is, I was raised to address her with Tagalog word for aunt, which is Tita. But none of that matters though, because her mac and cheese is neither Armenian nor Filipino. It’s just tasty and, better still, can be eaten with your hands once cooled and cut into squares. This isn’t, of course, to say that you can’t use a fork and knife, but what I want to know is why would you?)
When we were settled on the raft with our heaping plates and overflowing glasses, it was movie time. For a while, we kept shouting out derisive commentary to drown out the dialogue — yes, the film is that awful — but after a time we stopped doing even that. In fact, half of us fell asleep; I think I might have been the first to close my eyes, come to think of it. None of this stopped us from looking up factoids about the film afterwards — Kristy Swanson won the Young Artist Award for Best Young Actress in a Horror or Mystery Motion Picture, the exteriors were shot at Castle Hill in Ipswich — and it’s certainly not going to prevent me from reading the sequels. As terrible as Flowers in the Attic was, I just need to know what happens, the same way I just have to finish an open bag of Milanos: it’s unhealthy, irresistible and very regrettable indeed.
Tita Hasmig’s Mac + Cheese
Makes about twelve portions.
1 pound egg noodles
1 stick butter, plus one quarter
½ cup flour
4 cups milk (I use skim since that is what I drink, but if you can even use cream or half-and-have you want something richer)
1 pound mozzarella cheese
salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 375°. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook egg noodles according package instructions. Drain and set aside.
- While noodles cook, melt butter in a large saucepan. Gradually stir flour into melted butter and cook over medium heat; whisk until a roux forms, then stir in milk. Whisk constantly until combined and sauce is free of lumps. Add cheese and salt and pepper; continue to stir until cheese has melted completely.
- Grease the bottom and sides of a large Pyrex or oven-proof baking dish, then evenly distribute breadcrumbs across the surface. Add cooked noodles to cheese and stir to combine. Pour noodle and cheese mixture into the baking dish and sprinkle the top with more bread crumbs. Cut the last quarter stick of butter into pieces and scatter across the breadcrumbs. Bake until top browns, about thirty minutes or so. Let cool, and cut into squares.