Jezebel Summer of Bad Books Club: We've Come To the End

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Jezebel Summer of Bad Books Club: We've Come To the End

Friends and fellow readers, it’s happened—after 500 excruciatingly rendered (and read) pages, over the course of which we discussed womanhood, sisterhood, the female gothic, and why a generation of 12-year-old girls simply could not get enough of this fucking book, our journey through time and myriad family mysteries alongside Audrina Adare has come to an end. Emily and I have had very separate ideas about this book, which is part of what has made this book club so entertaining. Here are our thoughts.

Emily: It’s difficult to read My Sweet Audrina without imagining V.C. Andrews writing it. A woman who’d suffered a fall down a staircase that left her wheelchair-bound and under the care of her mother for the remainder of her life, Andrews’s novels seem trapped in the claustrophobia of adolescence–when parents are lord and master over the lives of young people trying to figure out how much of their identity is inborn and how much has simply been thrust upon them by the rules of the world in which they live. After her father’s death in 1957, Andrews sacrificed for her family by supporting them doing work as a commercial artist, despite being in constant pain that left her unable to leave her childhood home, while her they sacrificed to take care of her. Though there isn’t much record of who V.C. Andrews the person was, it’s difficult not to see her struggle with the concept of sacrifice in the pages of the novel.

Health-wise, she was very much like Vera, one of the many villains in Audrina, whose bones are fragile and who has been left with permanent injuries from childhood. But Audrina is also a prisoner of Whitefern with lingering injuries from childhood, though unlike Vera, whose bitterness over never receiving the love she needed as a child ultimately kills her, Audrina’s entire personality is built around avoiding unpleasant emotions out of consideration for the emotions of others, namely her father’s, and later, her husband’s. We find out in the novel’s conclusion that there was no “first” Audrina. The novel’s one and only Audrina has been denied access to her own pain, by her parents, unable to face the shame of a nine-year-old daughter as the victim of a brutal sexual assault, who simply invented another girl to dump the bad feelings onto and started over by demanding Audrina become a clean slate.

Throughout the novel, Damian Adare is presented as the volatile, narcissistic god of Whitefern, demanding absolute fealty from the women of the house, but no one more than Audrina, whom he has chosen as his favorite. If he is the father, then the second Audrina is the son, and the first Audrina the holy ghost. Audrina is essentially Christ story told out of order—the death and resurrection come first, and then the slow payment for the sins of others—the boys’, her parents, her cousin’s, and even her husband’s—as Audrina becomes the only person at Whitefern expected to be forgiving, compassionate, and chaste. Vera is a Judas, revealing that it was her who sold the first Audrina out to be sexually assaulted before falling to her death on those goddamn murderous Whitefern stairs, and Arden Lowe, her husband, as Peter, denying Audrina his help first as children and then twice more as an adult by philandering with Vera instead of defending his wife. In the final sacrifice of the novel, Audrina gives her own potential for a life in the outside world up to save her father, husband, and sister from…nothing really, just the discomfort of living with themselves.

The stakes of the female gothic novel are very rarely life and death. The conflict is usually navigating complicated expectations for young women

But the stakes of the female gothic novel are very rarely life and death. The conflict is usually navigating complicated expectations for young women and making it out not seriously traumatized in any permanent way. Female gothic heroines must be sexually appealing without inviting sexual attention, or as I’ve written previously must fight their way “through the deadly boners to the friendly ones,” but that fight cannot be in any way combative. Audrina cannot hate her abusive father or philandering husband because, according to the rules of her world, only bad women, like Vera and Ellsbeth get mad. And angry women fall down the stairs to their deaths. The only way Audrina can fight is through forgiveness, hoping the abusive men who rule the home will be kinder by example of her self-sacrifice, like a Stockholm syndrome Jesus begging her father/captor to forgive himself for he knows not what he does.

It’s an insane situation in a book that quite frequently does not make sense, it is also, very bizarrely, an honest look at the ways that women are constantly asked to swallow their own rage and digest it into more palatable emotions out of consideration for the feelings of the very fuckers who made us so mad in the first place. Gothic novels are often horror stories about how shitty it is to be a woman, and My Sweet Audrina, for all its faults, is an incredibly complicated examination of the added shittiness of being a teenage girl trying to parse the guilt and sense of responsibility for bad parents’ traumatizing mistakes. This happens while navigating the contorted funhouse of internalized misogyny and adolescent self-hate with the only prize being the chance at doing better in one’s own adulthood, a chance Audrina forfeits at the end of the novel for the very people whose mistakes have damaged her.

In the grand tradition of Gothic novels, from Pamela to Mysteries of Udolpho, My Sweet Audrina doesn’t make a ton of fucking sense. Instead, it’s about capturing a feeling of persistent dread akin to a nightmare that keeps going long after the sleeper has realized they’re dreaming. The ghouls are cut from a cloth made of real world-adjacent cruelties even 12-year-old girls can easily recognize, which makes the whole book more unsettling. We were wrestling with our own collective shame, guilt, and baggage within these pages all along.

Megan: Revisiting My Sweet Audrina as an adult some 20-years later has been an eye-opening look at the more hideous parts of adolescence that I’d successfully managed to repress. My childhood was nothing like Audrina’s, but the themes that Emily so beautifully elucidated are indeed eternal: being a woman so often means minimizing your own discomfort and, as a good friend once said to me in the depths of my own despair, making your feelings legible for others, for their comfort and not your own.

Even though Audrina seemed like she had no real choice in the matter, technically, she did. Striking out and leaving Whitefern was always on the table, though the position she found herself in as daughter, mother, and prized pet made it difficult for her to ever leave. Her refusal to do so at the end of the book—her capitulation to a situation from which she could very easily escape—is a testament to the depths of self-sacrifice. Perhaps I’m as damaged as Audrina is, or at least sympathize with this fictional character enough to project, but there’s something sweet and sad about her optimism that everything will be okay if she approaches her life in Whitefern from a place of honesty and love. I admire her optimism and her faith in the resiliency of her own spirit, which is so used to being crushed that she truly knows no other way.

Aside from all of the deeply fucked-up nonsense that Audrina endured throughout this entire book, though, the one thing that stuck out to me is the hideous ties of family—how those bonds are unshakeable—and are also a burden that linger like a recurring STI, retreating in times of calm but re-emerging every now and again to ruin lives for a few months before returning to dormancy. We have no control over the family we are born into, but the family we choose after the fact is a different matter. It’s a shame that Audrina wasn’t able to experience that freedom.

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