Alas, we return to the Cutler series, as I have purchased the rest of the books rom my local used bookstore! SHOP LOCAL! We’re back with Dawn Cutler, and we’re eager to spend more time in her garbage life. Secrets of the Morning is the second book in the Cutler series, and it picks up right where Dawn left off.
SHADOWED BY HER TORTURED PAST, DAWN HAS A BRIGHT NEW LIFE OF GLIMMERING HOPES…
Dawn can hardly believe she’s a student at one of New York City’s best music schools. Now her most precious wish, to become a singer, can come true. But Dawn still dreams about Jimmy, her strong, intense boyfriend, and the love and anguished secrets they share.
Then Michael Sutton arrives, a new teacher at the school, a singing star and the most wonderful-looking man Dawn has ever seen. Together they create a world of feeling Dawn has never known. In his embrace Dawn awakens to disturbing, unfamiliar desires, and Michael’s promises offer a vision of music and romance forever…until he disappears.
Dazed by this cruelty, alone with the bitter fruit of his betrayal, Dawn becomes, once again, a victim of her grandmother’s twisted schemes. Desolate, she clings to the tender hope that Jimmy will return and renew with her their deepest hearts’ dream.
About the Book
Published in 1990, Secrets of the Morning features a letter from the Andrews family in regards to V.C. Andrews’ death in 1986. It’s the second book to feature this letter.
A bulk of the book takes place in New York City, where Dawn’s prestigious performing arts school, the Sarah Bernhardt School of Performing Arts, is located.
Coincidentally, I just finished Falling Stars, which also takes place in a performing arts school in New York City. I kept thinking I was gonna get the schools mixed up in my head. Fortunately, most Secrets of the Morning takes place outside of school. We’ll get to why in just a moment.
Behind the keyhole features a shot of our aging characters: Dawn’s in the hot seat. To her left is Clara Sue, and then behind her is Philip, Grandmother Cutler, Michael Sutton, and then Jimmy to her right.
I got the rest of the Cutler series in a massive V.C. Andrews haul from my local bookstore. Each book was like $5, which feels kind of steep for a used paperback, but I also like supporting local business’. It’s also nice to be able to shop for used books that are actually organized properly.
My copy has your standard spine creases and softened edges. The cover’s been folded all the way back. Of specific note is the ripped keyhole cover, which saddens me to no end. This is also the first book I’ve bought with the previous owner’s name written inside:
Robin Stone – Feb “92”
I have so many questions for you, Robin. Are you the sole owner of this book or did you read it and pass it down to other girls? Did you like this book? Why didn’t you take better care of this book? Why can’t you read a paperback without creasing the spine like a neanderthal? How could you be so cruel? What did you do to destroy the signature keyhole of this glorious first edition mass market V.C. Andrews paperback?
After the lackluster mess of the Shooting Stars series, I was ready to get back to that good old retro V.C. Andrews where truly awful stuff happens to the protagonist. And I’ll tell you, this book put me though a roller coaster of feelings. Most of them rage. Was it fun? Yes. Was it also agonizing?
Let me just elaborate for you, by going through all of the standard V.C. Andrews tropes.
An Innocent & Pretty, Yet Completely Naive Female Protagonist
Dawn’s now 16 and touching down in New York City. (Queue standard New York establishing shots now.) An old lady befriends her on the plane, asking if she has somebody waiting for her. Dawn’s got a cab driver but she takes forever finding him. Much of the beginning features Dawn awkwardly acquainting herself with the city.
She lives in a specialized student house run by a woman named Agnes who is apparently a former performer. Agnes, having received a letter from Grandmother Cutler about Dawn’s horrible behavior, treats her pretty awful from the start. Dawn does her chores and Agnes lifts some of her probationary restrictions, which ultimately leads Dawn down a horrible path of no good very bad decisions.
And boy, oh boy, if this novel is about anything, it’s bad decisions all around.
A Rags to Riches Plot
First off, I wanna say that the first THIRD of this book is pointless. Dawn makes a pretty ditzy but earnest and loving friend, Trisha, and they establish a standard 80’s girl relationship that wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test. Dawn spends her days pining over Jimmy (now a military man). Then she befriends this dude Arthur, who lives in the student house.
Arthur’s at the school to play the oboe (as per his adopted parents’ demands), but Dawn discovers that is true dream to write poetry. She encourages him to pursue his passion, and then he writes her a poem before he peaces out entirely. On page 119, Arthur writes her a goodbye letter and he never comes back and is never referenced again. Like why waste a third of the book on this? Is it just to prove that Dawn is nice? Is it to make her seem likable? Because none of it matters after she meets…
A Beloved Doting Paternal Figure
He’s a singer and actor who comes to teach a very exclusive class at the Bernhardt School. Of course, Dawn gets a place in the class after singing her perfect Mary-Sue scales for him. He invites her on this date at a gallery that isn’t actually a date because shows up at the gallery with a different woman.
Later, in a one-on-one class, Michael gets all close and touches her and kisses her and professes his love. Dawn, a total idiot, falls for his second invitation to a party at his apartment. She dresses up nice and finds herself the only guest at the party. And yes, they bone.
She’s 17 now. He’s a guy in his 30’s, clearly manipulating his way into her pants:
“You are stunning, almost too beautiful to disturb, like a magnificent flower that should only be admired and never plucked. But I don’t have that kind of restraint and then again, you should not be denied the splendid ecstasy that comes when two talented and beautiful people make love.”
Seriously, fuck this guy. I wanna blame Dawn for some of her stupidity, but Michael’s the damn adult here. As much as I don’t wanna blame Dawn for being naive, it’s impossibly difficult not to hate her for falling for Michael’s utter BS. Even when Trisha tells Dawn that she’s worried about her dating an older man (who Dawn lies about and says is a divorced man named Allen who wants a younger version of his dead wife), Dawn is like: “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, HE LOVES ME!!!!!!!”
Michael is rich, too. He buys her a locket and some fake-ass Christmas gifts that he puts under a tree for her. He promises her a great Christmas. Except Christmas never comes and Dawn never even gets a chance to open all the fake gifts because…
SHE GETS PREGNANT.
Distraught, Dawn immediately tells Michael. He promises that he’ll take her to Florida, where she will have the baby and they’ll live happily ever after as a glorious family. But then, a few days later, Michael skips town, leaving Dawn to fend for herself.
Dawn runs through the streets in a frantic hallucination and manages to get hit by a car (in true melodramatic style!). Don’t worry, though, because she only suffers a three-day coma and somehow avoids breaking any bones or sustaining any damage. Then Grandmother Cutler arrives. Wanting to avoid any further embarrassment to the Cutler name, she sends Dawn off to her sister’s plantation estate to have her baby, Lady Edith-style.
A Vivid Gothic Setting
Grandmother Cutler’s sisters, Emily and Charlotte, live on the Booth Estate, an old plantation also known as The Meadows. A scraggly guy named Luther picks Dawn up from the airport and drives her there in this stanky truck. Then we arrive to a Youtube Urbex video opening montage:
Over the great round columns of the full-facade porch ran thin leafless vines that looked more like rotting rope. Some of the multipane front windows had black shutters and decorative crowns; some had lost their shutters and looked naked.
The estate is in such disrepair because Emily, or rather, “Miss Emily”, as she insists Dawn refer to her as, is a religious fanatic who believes anything of vanity or appearances is the Devils’ doing. She’s also as frugal as a Millennial drowning in student loans debt. She doesn’t spend money on repairs or cleaning or even power. The house has no hot water. They use kerosene lamps at night. In the frigid winter, they sleep with hot water bottles instead of turning on the heat.
It’s a pretty great setting, honestly, with all the empty rooms and cobwebbed corners and boiled-water baths in the pantry. It’s pure 1800’s living in The Meadows and the book is all the better for it.
A Hostile Maternal Figure (+ Bonus Mean Girl!)
Okay, so Miss Emily is a real figure to contend with. She’s supposedly a great midwife, so upon Dawn’s arrival she has Dawn strip down and she feels around her stomach and looks at her tits and assess how far along she is? Then she takes a look at Dawn’s vagina and tells her it’s gonna be a hard birth.
Not sure if that’s how midwifery works, but ooooooooookay.
Miss Emily takes all of Dawn’s clothes and gives her a flimsy cotton gown to wear during her entire stay at The Meadows. She piles on the chores for Dawn to do every day, insisting that hard work will be good for Dawn because it’ll prepare her for labour. As Dawn transitions further into her pregnancy, Miss Emily piles on increasingly difficult chores and cuts back on Dawn’s food if she doesn’t complete them. Having been through two pregnancies myself, this shit was insanely difficult to read through.
Later, when Miss Emily finds that Dawn is constipated, she forces Dawn to drink two glasses full of castor oil. Dawn diarrheas ALLLLLLLLLLL over the bathroom. It’s not until she wakes up covered in her own shit that she realizes that Miss Emily maybe might want to force her to miscarry?
Charlotte, the younger sister, is one of V.C. Andrews’ classic “simple” characters who is simple simply because she’s suffered some kind of past trauma and keeps dropping hints about a “baby” she once had. We find out that Charlotte was raped by Luther at one point in the past. She child with “devil’s ears”, according to Miss Emily. The child lived for a while, but eventually passed, though it’s never specified how.
Dawn discovers this on a night in the “forbidden wing”. When she’s confronted by Miss Emily, she immediately goes into labour and a baby girl is born. Miss Emily insists that the baby is “too small” and takes her away. This was frustrating to me because the baby was born a month early, which would mean that she’d need to be incubated, but none of that shit happens.
Dawn’s literally just like, “guess I’ll have a nap?” And then she has a nap.
Some Good Olde School Misogyny
Let’s start with this line of dialogue in the scene where Dawn protests to Miss Emily that people live more civilized lives now:
“Oh I know how people live today,” she said with that cold smile on her lips, “especially women with their fancy-smelling perfumes and seductive clothing. Don’t you know that the devil won Eve’s trust by appealing to her vanity and that ever since that hateful day, our vanity has been the devil’s doorway to our souls? Lipstick and makeup and pretty combs, lace dresses and jewelry…all devices to fan temptation and drive men to the promontory of lust. They fall,” she chanted, “oh how they fall and they take us down with them, down into the fires of hell and damnation.”
I’m not even gonna poke that fundamentalist shtick with a stick, so let’s move on!
After the baby’s birth (and subsequent kidnapping), all is lost until Jimmy returns to save the day. He has a long story about how he found Dawn, but with his masculine powers, he gives Dawn the strength to confront Miss Emily before leaving. Dawn discovers that Grandmother Cutler hatched he plan to take her baby away. So, it’s back to the Cutler’s Cove Resort to face the final boss!
BUT, not before this ridiculous shopping spree:
Jimmy was anxious to buy me new clothes and new shoes and took me to a department store as soon as we drove into a town that had one. He was very proud of being able to do it, and I saw that if I began to protest that something was too expensive, he would immediately grow upset.
Just gonna chime in with my postpartum knowledge: After having a baby, one does not simply go on a damn shopping spree. No new mother wants to put anything that isn’t a pair of sweatpants on her postpartum body. At no point does Dawn’s milk ever come in. At no point do her breasts ever ache or leak. At no point does she make Jimmy suck the milk out of her tits in the hotel room to prevent her from getting mastitis.
NONE OF THIS IS REALISTIC.
There’s plenty of misogyny in this book (which I will quote in the “bad writing” section), but the pregnancy stuff just blew my mind. Like, you’d think after Dawn loses her child that she’d go all soap opera melodramatic. Nope! She’s sad, obviously, but her rage at her grandmother and her lust for Jimmy pretty much overpower her postpartum hormones.
Clearly, Neiderman wrote this before the days of Google, but surely he could have found a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting somewhere during the writing of this book.
Do your research, bro!
A Tragic Death
Best part: Dawn and Jimmy return to the Cutler’s Cove Resort to find that Grandmother Cutler has suffered a stroke and is in hospital. They head on over. Dawn pleads to know where Grandmother Cutler sent the baby. Then this happens:
She closed and opened her mouth again, this time producing sounds. I knelt closer to understand and brought my ear to her lips. It was mostly gurgling in her throat, but I began to make out some words.
She uttered them and then closed her eyes and turned away. The heart monitor began a high-pitched, monotonous ring.
“Why?” I cried. “Why?“
So that’s the death scene.
I’ve noticed that Neiderman’s “final confrontation” scenes frequently end this way. Even the one where Dawn reams out Miss Emily before leaving The Meadows is pretty lackluster. They lack in tension and often fall flat, and as a reader, I can’t help but look up from the pages and scream into the ceiling.
As if there weren’t enough shocks in this book, Dawn gets called back to the reading of Grandmother Cutler’s will. Inside, it reveals that Dawn’s missing father is actually her grandfather, who either raped or seduced Laura-Sue (Dawn’s biological mother). In a fit of grief, Dawn’s Daddy Grandpa wills 60% of the Cutler estate to Dawn.
Some Really Bad Writing
There’s a lot of it, mostly relating to Dawn’s really flawed attitudes toward men and sex. Here’s a thought she has after playing checkers with Arthur Garwood, wherein he explains that his parents never have sex:
After he left I thought about the things he told me. Why would a man and woman live together as husband and wife is one of them didn’t want to touch each other or be touched? Wasn’t sex a way of bringing yourself as close to another person, a person you loved, as could be? And why would a woman be so frightened of it? Was it just her fear of becoming pregnant? How confusing and complicated the world was once you leave that realm in which you dwelt as a child, I thought. You lived in a bubble until one day the bubble burst and you were forced to look around and see that pain and suffering were not part of some make believe that would disappear in the blink of an eye.
SERIOUSLY, Dawn? For real? You lived through all the horrible stuff in your first book and you didn’t know this? Your mother cheated on your father (who didn’t turn out to be your father but is your step-father). Your mother and step-father NEVER bone. Your half-brother literally raped you. Your family is whack, and you still think sex is some kind of fairy tale?
Near the book’s climax, Dawn hits her breaking point during her stay at The Meadows, and she writes a letter to Trisha and tries to run away in the middle of a snowstorm to mail it at the nearby town. Wearing only her cotton gown and blanket (clutched to her bosom!), Dawn follows the ONLY road leading away from the estate and still somehow manages to get lost:
It had grown so dark so quickly, I thought. Was I heading in the right direction? My panic grew. I started in one direction and then stopped and started in another. Then, terrified I was lost and would die in the cold. I broke into a trot, my stomach bouncing so hard, I had to keep my hands under it and consequently lost my blanket off my shoulders. But I didn’t stop to retrieve it. I kept running and running and running. My foot got stuck in a soft part of the road and when I pulled up, it came right out of my shoe. It seemed as if the very earth were trying to swallow me up. I was too panicked I didn’t even notice I was running with a bare right foot. I ran on and on until I was gasping for breath and had to stop. Then, clutching my stomach, the pain excruciating everywhere on my body, I fell on my knees and sobbed and sobbed.
Luther pulls up in his truck and drives Dawn back to the house, which is just a “few hundred yards” away. I just… why does she need to be this pathetic? I realize that writers need to be cruel to their characters for tension’s sake, but Neiderman could have at least had a bit of respect for Dawn and given her the damn dignity to make it a mile or two before crumbling.
Lastly, it wouldn’t be a V.C. Andrews book without some bosom references coupled with some very dated-sounding fashion choices:
My heart was so full of happiness, I thought it was sure to burst. I had packed some things in my suitcase in anticipation of Michael and I having a night like this. Trisha had gone with me to buy an uplift bra. My deepened cleavage and my surging bosom made me look years older. I couldn’t help the blush that settled at the entrance to the valley between my breasts, but I thought that made me look even more enticing in my black V-neck, three-quarter-sleeve dress. The tiny diamonds on my locket sparkled on my chest.
Fantastic Psychological Horror
I can’t so much call the horror in his book “psychological” because Dawn never finds herself inherently trapped. Some of the events at The Meadows feel terrifying in that the estate is so remote and without modern utilities that Dawn literally has no choice but to wait things out. It’s just frustrating that once she does decide to leave that she doesn’t use an iota of brains and think, “Hey, Maybe I’ll steal Luther’s keys and drive the truck out!”
Her stupidity overpowers the horror.
My Final Thoughts
This was a frustrating read, to say the least. New York isn’t much of a V.C. Andrews setting and over half of the book takes place there. Dawn’s also a major idiot, and while it’s kind of “satisfying” that she has to deal with her mistakes, the stuff at the Meadows is just beyond. Long story short, I definitely felt the emotional turmoil roller coaster, which is kind of what these books are supposed to do.
- Pretty sweet decaying mansion setting.
- Trisha is the bestie we all wish we had.
- The ideal guide to NOT dating older men in your teens.
- Unrealistic postpartum expectations!
- Another "simple" character used as a plot device.
- WTF is the point of Arthur Garwood?
- "New York, I love you, but you're a horrible setting for a V.C. Andrews novel."