Sunday, February 7, 2010
My Sweet Audrina
Virginia Andrews – or V. C. Andrews, as she’s more widely known – was a writer of Southern gothic fiction. Her most (in)famous novel is Flowers in the Attic, which I read when I was fifteen or so. I quickly followed that up with the rest of the novels she wrote, then discovered that a ghostwriter had started pumping out more books with her name on them.
Those aren’t as memorable, but the original V. C. Andrews novels had some interesting aspects. My Sweet Audrina is an example of how good her work can be.
Unlike her first two sets of novels, this book is a standalone. It has many things in common with other V. C. Andrews novels, but in other ways it’s original. It doesn’t end all that happily, and best of all, the heroine doesn’t have a child whose innocence will be taken away by whatever problems the heroine once faced. Some V. C. Andrews series are predictable. This book… isn’t.
The Southern Gothic setting is well-established. Audrina is a child growing up in a large, lonely house. Her father, Damian, is loving but dominating (and completely self-centered) and her mother is not entirely content in her marriage. Partly because they live with her older sister, who was once Damian’s lover. That union resulted in an illegitimate daughter called Vera, who lives with them and is of course jealous of her half-sister Audrina.
One big happy family.
But there’s also the First Audrina. Audrina’s older sister and namesake died under mysterious circumstances, and Audrina is constantly reminded that the First Audrina was better than she is. Her father frequently makes her sit in the First Audrina’s rocking chair to try and gain the First Audrina’s “gift”. Audrina has problems with her memory that mean she's not allowed to go to school, so she lives a stifled, penned-in existence – they don’t even have newspapers or a television – and dreams of a normal life.
Two things happen to change that. The first is that a family moves into a small house nearby – a single woman and her teenage son, Arden. The second is that Audrina’s mother becomes pregnant again and dies in childbirth. The baby, Sylvia, quickly becomes Audrina’s responsibility, even though she has profound mental retardation.
Sylvia is one of the most original characters I’ve ever encountered. I wish I’d remembered her back when I wrote a post on characters with mental problems, because she’s a refreshing change from the stereotype. She can’t speak, and Audrina has to keep her in diapers for several years (very realistic).
But she’s also beautiful, amoral and very unsettling. The only person she really loves and listens to is Audrina, and there’s even some suspicion at the end that she may have been responsible for the murder of a woman.
Terror lit up Papa’s dark eyes. As if he knew that Sylvia had imitated me once too often, and rocked in that chair many more times than I would let him force me.
Now she had the gift – whatever it might be, and if it could be.
On the topic of sisters, Vera fares less well. Virginia Andrews’ novels usually feature a stock character I call the Slut Sister. This is the heroine’s less beautiful sister, who is jealous of the heroine and who attempts to seduce the man the heroine loves. Unfortunately for Vera, the Slut Sister rarely ends up happy, so the author gives her a medical condition where her bones break easily. She also has a miscarriage (quite graphically described, for a V. C. Andrews novel).
I haven’t mentioned a hero, because this novel doesn’t have one. Audrina falls in love with Arden, literally the boy next door, but I thought that was because she had no other options when it came to men. He’s described as handsome and talented, but he’s also weak in a way I can’t describe without giving away spoilers. Other readers may see the twist in this novel, but it took me by a lot of surprise when I originally read it.
Because this novel is a standalone, it packs a lot of heightened emotion (and sex, some of it quite hot). But all the characters are flawed, and no relationships truly healthy. Maybe that’s why it’s a surprisingly satisfying read.