Review – The Chocolate Money by Ashley Prentice Norton

By | January 20, 2014

August, 1978. Chicago.

Shopping at Saks, summers in the Riviera, cruising down Lake Shore Drive in a toffee-coloured stretch limo.

For ten year old Bettina, this is what’s normal. She’s grown up as the heiress to one of America’s biggest fortunes – and in the shadow of her dangerously hedonistic mother Babs. Babs plays by nobody’s rules: naked Christmas cards, lavish theme parties at her Lake Shore Drive penthouse, nocturnal visits from her married lover, while his wife sleeps at their nearby home.

At fifteen, Bettina escapes to a prestigious New England boarding school, desperate to become her own person and fit in to her preppy new world. But, the lessons taught to her by Babs about how to manipulate men, control your friends and host Naughty Nautical fancy dress parties suddenly don’t seem to be much help. Finding her freedom is more difficult than Bettina ever could have imagined.

This book was a lesson to me in being a little more careful when I choose my reads. I have no idea why, but I was expecting a US coming-of-age read at the same level as The Perks of Being A Wallflower or What I Saw And How I Lied. This was something a great deal darker – and, while I’m really pleased I read it, it really was quite deeply disturbing and most definitely wouldn’t be a book everyone would like.

The book tells the story – in the first person – of Bettina Ballentyne.  She lives with her mother-from-hell Babs in a world of naked Christmas cards, lavish parties and hedonism. She is also atrociously neglected, and has an inappropriate level of sexual knowledge from an early age. Bettina craves love and approval, but it’s something she’s never going to get from Babs. The story then moves to Bettina at fifteen, when she attends a private school and proves ill-equipped to handle normal friendships or to respond to small acts of kindness – not altogether surprising when she has arrived at the school alone and Babs’ only involvement is to send a parcel of alcohol.

This is an incredibly difficult book to read – the neglect, the abuse, graphic sex and twisting of normal human behaviour makes the whole experience really uncomfortable. Some of the reviews call it “darkly comic” – I’d say it was closer to “dark and disturbing”. But I have to say that it is quite brilliantly written – your heart breaks for Bettina, and, although you might not really want to read any more, you just have to keep turning the pages. The other characters – Mac and Babs while at home, Meredith and Cape at school – are vividly drawn and intricately detailed. 

Would I recommend it? If you’re not easily shocked, and don’t mind your reading being edgy and uncomfortable, yes I would. Although it’s not an experience you’ll necessarily “enjoy”, it’s a wonderful piece of writing that I won’t forget in a hurry.

My thanks to netgalley and publishers Transworld for my advance reading e-copy. The Chocolate Money was published in kindle and hardback editions in September 2012, and in paperback (by Black Swan) in July 2013.
Ashley Prentice Norton lives in New York with her husband and three children and The Chocolate Money is her first novel. She is also the great-great-granddaughter of John D Rockefeller, but maintains that the book is 80% fiction. I found a fascinating interview with her in the ChicagoTribune.