No one I knew in school had actually read the thing, but it would bubble up in conversation every few years, and then quickly fade away. We didn’t want to talk about it – we didn’t want to think about it – that’s how bad we felt, but it couldn’t be ignored; We needed to acknowledge it and to share our forbidden knowledge. It wasn’t like the other strange, vaguely sexual things kids talk about on the playground – it wasn’t something we could laugh about. It wasn’t funny at all. It was almost as if the story of the Dollanganger children had really happened and we knew we shouldn’t get off on their misery.
I am not exactly sure how my peers found out that this novel existed – someone’s older sister, perhaps? Someone’s parents? Anyway, it was so taboo that we banned it ourselves. Maybe there was some sort of social standing at stake? I’m 90% sure it was available in our school library (I remember an excited, scared whisper: “They have that book in the library here… oh my god”), so we could have read it, but we didn’t because we might be mistaken as being “into that kind of thing,” and that pisses me off now, but that’s a different story. I don’t think our school would have minded – especially if someone “responsible” was reading it (I am the girl who painted the cover of The Unbearable Lightness of Being for my square on our senior quilt…), but no one was daring enough, no one was willing to throw their reputation on the line to just get the thing over with.
I pride myself on being a fearless reader, yet I couldn’t bring myself to read this novel until this year. That weird social stigma was still there. I saw it was on Scribd, and I decided to finally get it over with. And you know what? It was actually pretty boring. The sex (rape? I don’t even know what it was) barely happened – the kids are disgusted with themselves, God literally strikes one of them down, and they generally take anything worth whispering about away and make it into something shown in an Afterschool Special. It was entertaining at times (I liked the descriptions of clothes and opulence and the occasional plot twists), but I feel letdown after the fifteen years of muffled whispering. I think the thing that most disturbed me in the book is when they randomly decide to drink each other’s blood or pee on each other to get some fabulous hair. These are the parts worth exchanging knowing glances in studyhall over.
Maybe the reason why we didn’t read it back then was because we knew that once we read it, the mystery would be gone. Or maybe we didn't read it because we somehow knew that 400 pages of attic life couldn't possibly be that thrilling. Don’t get me wrong – this is an amusing novel and I’d even go as far as to say I liked it, but it wasn’t the soulless black hole I needed it to be.
(But I love these 1970s paperback covers - they're perfect).