After finishing the Cutler series, I figured it was worth diving into a book penned by V.C. Andrews herself. I settled on Heaven, the first book in the popular Casteel series that Lifetime recently made into a set of garbage movies.
OF ALL THE FOLKS IN THE MOUNTAIN SHACKS, THE CASTEELS WERE THE LOWEST — THE SCUM OF THE HILLS
Heaven Leigh Casteel was the prettiest, smartest girl in the backwoods, despite her ragged clothes and dirty face . . . despite a father meaner than ten vipers . . . despite her weary stepmother, who worked her like a mule. For her brother Tom and the little ones, Heaven clung to her pride and her hopes. Someday they’d get away and show the world that they were decent, fine and talented — worthy of love and respect.
Then Heaven’s stepmother ran off, and her wicked, greedy father had a scheme — a vicious scheme that threatened to destroy the precious dream of Heaven and the children forever!
Published shortly before V.C. Andrews’ death, Heaven is the first book in the Casteel series. The first two books, Heaven and Dark Angel were published by Andrews shortly before her death, and the family hired a ghostwriter to complete the series under her name. V.C. Andrews fans often hail the Casteel series as the best, and I was extremely excited to see what all the fanfare was all about.
My Copy of Heaven
I’ll be honest. I really, really tried to score myself a stepback copy but it’s definitely not easy. Heaven is a beloved V.C. Andrews novel, and it’s also an older one, which makes getting a first edition difficult. I’m not sure how many times this book was republished but the editions are definitely not the same.
I bought two different copies online from Thriftbooks. Both copies were supposed to be in “Like New” condition and they were definitely not in what I could consider to be “Like New”. Both of my copies were published in 1985 but neither of them had keyhole covers.
I read the severely damaged copy because, hey, it had character! Luckily, this edition had the stepback photo featured on the back, which is worth sharing because this book is jam-effing-packed with family:
We’ve got Heaven with her doll in the middle. Behind her is stepmother Sarah, and lurking behind Sarah is who I’m assuming is Heaven’s father Luke (though he looks too young). Gripping Heaven’s shoulder is Logan, and in the overalls is brother Tom. Left to right in the front row stands Fanny, Our Jane, and Keith.
Heaven: The Grown-Ass V.C. Andrews Review
Lemme start by saying that I was kind of let down by this one.
It’s a well-known fact that V.C. Andrews is not a good writer. Her prose wanders all over the place. Plot meanders between paragraphs. The tension fails to stay taut. Revelations happen in passing exchanges and out of the actual action. It’s hard to actually FEEL the feelings because all Heaven does is tell me her day in extended summary.
I hate to say it but I kind of missed Neiderman’s writing, simply because it was easier to mock. There’s a significant lack of “breasts” in this book. And the sex scenes don’t immediately start with a dude grabbing a woman’s breasts, either. Much appreciation in that regard. *golf clap*
That all said, while V.C. Andrews might have not been the greatest writer, her true skill was telling a saucy twisted story with a very female-focused dilemma. So let’s see how Heaven holds up to the V.C. Andrews formula.
An Innocent & Pretty, Yet Completely Naive Female Protagonist
Readers meet Heaven in the middle of the night. She’s 10 and her grandmother takes her to the graveyard and tells her that her mother isn’t her real mother. She shows Heaven her bio-mom’s grave. Engraved in the marker is the name Leigh, her father’s one true love. Leigh, of course, died giving birth to Heaven Leigh Casteel and her father never got over it.
Heaven’s grandmother gives Heaven a fancy suitcase full of fancy clothes and a fancy doll wearing a bride’s gown. The book states that Leigh had lovely blonde hair and that the doll looks exactly like Leigh, but for some reason the doll on the stepback photo has brown hair like Heaven. Such inconsistency!
Heaven loves school and reading, but she’s also the oldest girl in the family, which means that she’s frequently burdened with cooking and childcare duties whenever her stepmother doesn’t do it. Surprisingly enough, Heaven doesn’t have that secret special skill that other V.C. Andrews protagonists possess. No singing. No dancing. No painting. No true crime podcast obsession. She’s pure blood Casteel scum through and through.
A Beloved Doting Paternal Figure
Luke Casteel fails to make much of an appearance in the book’s events but he sure makes an impression. Hailed as the hottest dude in all of Winnerow, he captures the heart of every middle-aged woman who meets him, but he never looks or talks or acknowledges Heaven.
He spends most of his time making moonshine out in the boonies somewhere and only ever comes back to bang some dancers over at the local strip club. Occasionally he brings the kids some food or something he’s killed and he walks in like the savoir of the family even though he’s a total POS.
I pictured him like this, I won’t lie.
Heaven fails to understand why her father hates her. This is the underlying plot of the novel, which I actually quite appreciate, but most of this theme is relayed with Heaven just not getting it. Here’s but one example of Heaven crying to her half-brother, Tom:
“Pa doesn’t love me like he loves you, Fanny, Keith and Our Jane,” I sobbed, and even that made me feel weak and ashamed. “Am I so ugly and unbearable, Tom? Is that why Pa hates me so?”
Heaven isn’t actually that unbearable. She holds her own better than most V.C. Andrews protags. Heaven’s main issue is that she gets vapid from time to time. Jealous. Big-headed. They’re real flaws, though, so I can’t cut into her that much.
A Tragic Death
Heaven’s step-mom Sarah isn’t quite the bitch that the back synopsis makes her out to be. She’s just one of Luke’s side dishes who he impregnated immediately after (or perhaps sometime before?) Heaven’s mother died. Heaven states that she and her brother Tom shared a cradle growing up, but I’m not entirely sure how the timeline works out exactly, because Heaven and Tom are supposedly the same age.
Nevertheless, Sarah sticks with Luke and births three more of his kids. Heaven feels sorry for Sarah, who’s always tired and cranky and exhausted, getting fat (Heaven’s words, not mine!) and wasting her life waiting for useless Luke to turn his life around.
In the book’s rising action, Sarah admits to Heaven that she’s pregnant again, and Heaven helps out as best she can until the baby’s birth, where all hell breaks loose:
Granny looked where some type of sex parts should be, and neither she or I saw any.
I could hardly accept what my eyes told me. Shocking to see a baby with nothing between its legs. But what did it matter that this child was neither girl nor boy when it was dead and the top of its head was missing? A monster baby, icky with running sores.
“STILLBORN!” screamed Sarah, jumping out of bed and seizing the baby from my arms.
Okay, first off, you see what I mean about the narration falling flat? Heaven’s voice just feels passive and it dulls the intensity of the scene, but then Sarah’s dialogue kicks it scene back into momentum when she does something that I doubt any woman who’s LITERALLY JUST GIVEN BIRTH would do.
This is exactly why I love V.C. Andrews BUT I also love being critical of V.C. Andrews’ writing. It’s just not great.
QUESTION: Can a baby like legit be born without genitals? I’ve heard of them being born with both or a misshapen version of one, but never none at all. I really don’t think that can happen, but somebody in the medical field, please enlighten me in the comments.
Now, returning back to the book, Sarah takes the baby outside and confronts Luke, blaming the baby’s monster features on his whoring ways. (Luke has also just told the family that he has syphilis (gasp!) but this revelation doesn’t amount to much, really.)
Luke then takes the baby and THROWS THE DEAD BABY ON THE GROUND and drives back to the strip club. It’s some next-level crazy that I was no prepared for.
Sarah takes the next few chapters to work through the loss of her baby. Heaven takes over the role as mother until the day that Sarah vanishes, leaving just a simple note on the table that is pretty much the ideal breakup letter:
Can’t stay no longer with a man who just don’t care enough about anything. Going where it’s better. Good luck and good-bye.
Much as I loved ya, hate ya now.
Perfect. It’s perfect!
A Rags to Riches Plot
With Sarah gone and their father trying to overcome his syphilis by banging more women, the kids do their best to survive. The grandmother also dies shortly after the baby fiasco. The kids run out of food and start stealing from the townfolk to get enough to sustain themselves. Eventually they decide to leave the cabin, leaving their sad feeble grandfather behind. They pack up their things and turn to leave. BUT then Luke returns at long last!
It’s nearly Christmas and he has a special gift! What is that gift, you ask? Oh, it’s selling each kids to a new family for $500 a head.
Keith and Jane go to a young couple. Fanny goes off with the local reverend. Tom goes to some old man who plans to work him like a mule. Then Heaven sticks around the house with her dad for a while before two couples show up at the door.
Luke allows Heaven to choose which couple she’s sold to: the old, more distinguished couple, or this one:
The man was tall and good-looking, with dark brown staight hair and light brown eyes. Beside him stood his wife, almost as tall as he was. Six feet, or very near it, she had to be, even without those high heels. Her hair was a huge mass of auburn red, darker and richer than Sarahs’s hair had been. Sarah had never been to a beauty parlor, and only too obviously this woman’s hair couldn’t survive without one. Hair teased to such exaggerated fullness it seemed quite solid. Her eyes were a strange pale color, so light they seemed not to have any color at all, only huge pupils swimming in a colorless seas. She had that porcelain-white skin that often came with naturally red hair, flawless and made up to perfection. A pretty face? Yes. Very pretty.
And here’s the cake-topper:
Unlike the older couple who wore those heavy gray tailored coats, she wore a hot-pint suit, so tight it appeared painted on.
I mean, I guess with all things explained so well, how could Heaven NOT choose the latter?
A Hostile Maternal Figure (+ Bonus Mean Girl!)
Heaven leaves home with the young couple, Kitty and Cal Dennison. And because this is fun, here’s one more passage where Heaven OBSESSES over Kitty’s beauty:
Truthfully, I’d never seen a woman with so much exaggerated femininity, radiating sexuality with her heaving bosom, her full buttocks, her tiny waist that must have struggled to support all it had to. Her knit top was strained so much it appeared thin over the stress areas. Her pants emphasized the wide V of her crotch — making Pa stare at her with a queer smile, not of admiration but of contempt.
Upon arriving at the Dennison abode (a standard mid-century home in a suburb called Candlewick), Kitty reveals that she’s a former lover of Luke and that she bought Heaven because she was once impregnated by Luke and aborted her own child when the relationship went awry. Now unable to bear her own children, Kitty uses Heaven to both take revenge on Luke and also to be the mother she always wanted to be.
Joke’s on Kitty for buying the Luke’s least-favourite kid, right?
Kitty quickly becomes a controlling nightmare of a woman, first giving Heaven a boiling hot bath in friggin’ LYSOL to wash all the hillbilly scum off her. Kitty then forces Heaven to spend the first night in the house sleeping between her and Cal because she’s terrified of Heaven sleeping on her side and humping her pillow. Seriously, no joke.
There is no explanation for Kitty’s paranoia. She bans Heaven from watching TV unless there’s another adult in the room, and, of course, forces Heaven to do all the housework and all the cooking. Having lived without electricity and other modern luxuries, Heaven finds herself at a disadvantage. It takes her time to figure out how to use the washing machine and how to wax a floor. She also learns the hard way that it’s not safe to put china plates in the dishwasher:
“Yer a damned fool — that’s my best — took me foreva payin fer all those cups, saucers, plates, and things — now ya gone and ruined my things — goddamn Jesus Christ idiot hill-scum trash!”
Her pinching grasp hurt my arm. I tried to tug free. “I won’t do it again, Mother. I swear I won’t!”
“Yer damned right ya won’t do it again!” Wham! She punched my face, once, twice, three times!
Like yeah, this is beyond soap opera. This is some legit Tarantino shit right here.
Moments of the book show Kitty actually doing her best to be a caring mom, but she’s also a mess of a woman trying to maintain a status quo which portrays her wealth and luxury, even though at the heart of it, Kittye still loves McDonald’s and has never gone to a fancy restaurant. She’s insecure AF and, despite the horrors, is actually an interesting character.
Early in the book, Heaven has the odd touchy-feely relationship with her brother, Tom, but it never progresses and further than than cuddling for the sake of soothing each other. It’s weird but not Flowers in the Attic weird.
Heaven attaches herself to a boy named Logan at her school. Logan represents a good future option that Heaven could have by marrying him, but there are some weird complexities that occur in the course of their relationship that make no sense, plot-wise. Before Heaven’s sold, Logan visits but doesn’t seem to give a shit that she’s being sold and then it’s revealed that he had eye surgery and couldn’t see things straight? I don’t get it. I don’t understand why these things are even included in the book.
Anyway, the main relationship is Heaven’s father-daughter relationship with Cal. In his early 20’s, Cal is a clueless cougar-lover who puts up with much of Kitty’s unstable personality while taking pity in Heaven’s position.
I mean, he tries but he also puts up with the abuse because he is also a victim:
“When I understand what makes her what she is, how can I not love her? There’s one thing, though, I want to say now, while I have a chance. There are times when Kitty can be very violent. I know she put you into hot water on your first night here, but I didn’t say anything since you weren’t permanently harmed. If I’d said something then, she would be worse the next time she has you alone. Just be careful to do everything as she wants. Flatter her, say she looks younger than I do . . . and obey, obey and be meek.”
He helps Heaven navigate her new life in her modern home. He buys her nice clothes and furniture and then, you know, falls in love with her. The two eventually bone and Heaven quickly realizes that she’s made a mistake by sleeping with her rebound-dad, the shame of which lingers with her for a long. damn. time.
Again, more props to Andrews here for that realism. It’s nicely buried and very gutting.
A Vivid Gothic Setting
One major component that Heaven lacks is the gothic setting. She grows up in a two-room cabin. She moves into a suburb home that vastly differs from the V.C. Andrews settings that I know and love. That said, the Dennison house is actually fantastically weird.
To start, everything is white. The walls and the carpet and the floors are all clinical white so Kitty can see that it’s clean. But the best part is Kitty’s handmade pottery.
Her living room was larger than our entire cabin — but the most surprising things about this room was the colorful zoo it contained. Everywhere, on the window-sills, in corner cabinets, on the tables, lining the white carper up the stairs, sat animals made into fancy stands to hold plants; animal faces and forms made picture frames, lamps, baskets, candy dishes, footstools.
It turns out that Kitty is a ceramic artist who teaches classes. She’s also a hairtylist with lots of famous customers and she brags about them all the time. Later in the book, Cal convinces Kitty to give up a portion of her ceramic studio so Heaven can have a bedroom to herself. Heaven realizes that all the locked cupboards in the studio contain molds that Kitty uses to make her ceramic pieces, which doesn’t matter all that much but is a pretty major burn when Heaven confronts Kitty about being a fake.
Also of note is that the bathroom is pretty much exclusively hot pink. Kitty uses hot pink towels and Cal’s towels are black and velvet. Can you imagine drying yourself off on fucking VELVET?
Some Good Olde School Misogyny
So of course, V.C. Andrews books always focus a lot a woman’s attractiveness, but also on woman’s tasks like child-rearing and minding the home:
Sarah taught me a thousand things. By the time I was eight I knew how to make biscuits, melt the lard for the gravy, add the flour with water before I blended it into the hot grease. She taught me how to clean the window and sand scrub floors and use the washboard to force dirt out of filthy clothes. She also taught Tom to do as much as he could to help me, even if other boys did call him a sissy for doing “women’s work.” If Tom had not loved me so much, he might have objected more.
Speaking of being a “sissy”, there are also a lot of scenes that focus on the way men ought to be, like this scene where Heaven’s boyfriend Logan gets beat up by a bunch of other dudes for dating “hillbilly scum”, and when Heaven asks Tom to intervene, he chooses not to because doing so would emasculate Logan:
“There’ not gonna kill him, silly. They’re just testin t’see if he’s got what it takes.”
“WHAT DOES IT TAKE?” I yelled, ready to pitch in myself and help, but Tom caught and held me.
“Don’t you dare shame him by helpin,” he whispered urgently. “As long as he keeps sling blows and fightin back, they’ll respect him. Once you or I help, it’s all over for him.”
Heaven holds these same beliefs when she first meets Cal. There’s a scene where Kitty tries to seduce Cal while Heaven’s still sleeping between them. Cal barely manages to stand up for himself (because he’s a victim of abuse, ya’ll!), but Heaven just thinks he’s not a man:
I listened, amazed that he took what she dished out. Pa never would have. What kind of man was Kitty’s husband? Wasn’t a man always the boss in his family? I felt a bit sick that he didn’t fight back and stand up to her.
But then we get to the point where Cal and Heven have sex (which is written properly in that it’s meant to incite uneasiness, unlike that BS that Neiderman wrote in Secrets of the Morning, but I digress!). Luckily, Heaven’s not an idiot and feels insecure and wary about the whole thing. She’s still a child. Cal’s the adult who falls in love with her, and Heaven rightfully tries to avoid him, albeit also needing him because, hey, he’s supposed to be her father figure! And you know what? Props to V.C. Andrews for creating some real tension here.
Kitty’s abuse builds to a boiling point when…
…she goes into a funk of insanity that ultimately puts her into a catatonic state. Desperate, Cal and Heaven go back to Winnerow to take Kitty back to her family. This is where Heaven crashes into her old beau, Logan. Heaven emotionally updates him on her life as Kitty’s slave and here’s Logan’s garbage misogynist reaction:
“Why are you yelling at me? I didn’t sell you! I’m terribly sorry that you’ve suffered — but damned if I can see that you have! You look terrific, wearing expensive, beautiful clothes, like a debutante, and you come and tell me you’ve been sold and treated like a slave. If all slaves end up looking like beauty queens, maybe all girls should be sold into slavery.”
Some Really Bad Writing
Andrews’ prose wanders a lot more than Neiderman’s. I’d read over like three or four conflicting emotions in one paragraph. Say what you will about Neiderman, he can at least maintain an consistent emotion in one wall of writing. His melodrama might go off the damn charts, but honestly, after reading a scene like this one where Luke comes home to find Sarah missing, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel.
Not one of us could find words to tell him. Pa stood tall and lean, his bronze face clean-shaven and paler than usual, as if he’d undergone a great ordeal, and had lost at least ten pounds, and he he looked fresher, cleaner, and in a way, healthier than when I’d seen him last. He appeared a dark-haired giant, reeking of whiskey and that strange, overpowering scent that was strictly male. I shivered to know he was back; at the same time, I was overcome with relief. As mean as he was, he’d save us from starvation, now that real winter was upon us, and every day snow would be falling, and the wind would be whistling around our frail cabin, finding all kinds of ways to get in and chill our bones.
I can’t be worried and happy and terrified and relieved and dreading winter at the same time! This is pure train of thought and there’s a reason why fiction shouldn’t be told this way. It’s not effective. PICK AN EMOTION!
Another thing I’ll mention was the book’s ending, wherein a billion things happen in like 10 pages, the most relevant of which occurs outside of Heaven’s POV.
Let’s take a deep breath to get through this:
Kitty gets diagnosed with breast cancer. Her family catches wind of Heaven’s relationship with Cal and kicks both of them out of the house and into the Winnerow hotel. Heaven tries to re-establish her relationship with Logan but then he discovers that GASP! she’s not a virgin anymore. He leaves.
Tom finds Heaven and attempts to visit their grandfather who is now in a care home. Once they get to the home they discover that Luke has taken the grandfather out. Then Cal finds them and takes Heaven back to Kitty’s family home. Turns out Heaven’s father visited Kitty and left Heaven a note. The note provides Heaven with the home address of her younger siblings, Keith and Jane, and he asks if Heaven and Tom will go live with him and his new wife.
*Another deep breath*
Tom tries to convince Heaven that their father has truly changed for the better. Heaven isn’t convinced. Then this happens:
“Wait a minute,” whispered Kitty. “Got somethin else for ya.” She smiles weakly and took a small envelope from under her pillow. “Had a good talk wid yer pa — and he gave me this here t’keep fer ya, and give t’ya when t’time comes. It’s my way of trying t’make up fer what I did . . .” She floundered, glanced at Cal, then added, “I think t’time is now.”
Inside the new letter is a plane ticket to Boston which Heaven can use to go and live with her mother’s family. Like WHAT? So Luke gave both letters but Kitty didn’t choose to reveal them both at once? It’s all just plot for convenience sake.
Tom tries to convince Heaven to stay with their Pa, but Heaven packs her back to go to Boston. Then Tom calls Heaven to say that he dad is looking for her. Then Cal comes and calms Heaven and then Heaven goes to the airport and then Tom and Fanny (who is pregnant with the reverend’s baby, because OF COURSE the reverend is a rapist pedophile) to say their final goodbyes.
Like, why not just give Heaven one final confrontation with her dad? She never gets that satisfaction as a character, and instead we have to watch like 12 different characters try to convince Heaven of pointless things before she goes and does the thing she wanted to do anyway.
The execution of this climax leaves a lot to be desired.
Fantastic Psychological Horror
You know, I honestly thought it was well done. It takes a while to really get right down to it, and while I did feel that the plot of this book kind of meandered about, the tension between Heaven and Kitty was rough but I liked that she saw who Kitty was even though the abuse. Granted, that understanding doesn’t excuse Kitty’s behaviour, but I liked that her character had real dimension, as opposed to the typical matronly V.C. Andrews antagonist.
There’s some deep psychological trauma that gets explored, and I did enjoy Heaven’s struggle with wanting to maintain her father/daughter relationship with Cal while also trying to navigate her budding sexuality.
Once again, it’s this kind of horror that V.C. Andrews excels at and is famous for, so I’ll give her full props here.
Heaven: My Grown-Ass Final Thoughts
Looking back, there’s more to appreciate about Heaven than I did while reading it. Under a more skilled writer, this book would have had more potential to thrill or entice me. The middle portion with Cal and Kitty felt a bit odd, but the circumstances did develop Heaven’s character to a degree that made me feel somewhat compelled to follow her.
This being a V.C. Andrews book actually penned by Andrews herself, I have to give this one points. The only major deviation was the setting. I loved Winnerow and the cabin and the woods, but the lack of a true gothic house loses points here.
HEAVEN (Casteel #1)
- A TRUE V.C. Andrews book!
- Minimal references to breasts.
- Kitty conflicted the crap out of me and that's all kinds of good for a character.
- Prose felt flat.
- Serious lack of a gothic mansion.
- No incest.
- Logan is actually the worst.