I actually read The Chocolate Money by Ashley Prentice Norton several weeks ago and have neglected to review it since I have such mixed feelings.
Set in the 1980s, Bettina is the isolated and lonely only child of wild chocolate heiress Babs Ballentyne. Babs only cares about spending money and sleeping with men, leaving no time for mothering, except when she turns her scorn on Bettina for the things she does wrong. Bettina doesn’t know who her father is and has no friends, so she futilely attempts to get her mother’s attention by acting-out, for example cutting her own hair before their scandalous annual Christmas card shoot or getting drunk at Babs’ out-of-control parties.
The one father figure in her life is a man that Babs is having an affair with, whom Bettina also falls in love with as both a father and potential lover and whose eventual departure from their lives proves to have devastating effects. As Bettina grows up struggling to get out of Babs’ shadow while being continuously drawn back in, she finds that her unusual upbringing wins no friends at her elite boarding school, and actually causes more problems as she encounters the son of Babs’ paramour.
This book was very like Curtis Sittenfield’s Prep, although the protagonist of that came from a very different world than Bettina. Both characters struggled to assimilate amongst their peers as they grew up and utterly failed too. But they were most similar in that while I did empathize with their situations, I did so only to a certain extant. At some point, they became detestable in their cries for attention and I couldn’t even respect them as characters. Bettina clearly had a tough childhood, but she’s not ignorant of the consequences of her actions – she acknowledges that she acts in a cruel, careless way and deliberately chooses to become a train wreck. Boarding school was an easy opportunity for her to transform herself, but she continued to model herself after Babs. Her self-sabotage got to the point that I didn’t even care what happens to her. I only finished the book to finish the book, though I think the author tried to redeem her in the end.
The author clearly does some things well. She paints a vivid picture of the privileges and pitfalls of money, especially when you either have to live up to societal expectations or risk everything in defying them. The setting, mostly 1980s Chicago and its suburbia, rang true as did the social dynamics both in Babs’ and Bettina’s circles of acquaintances. Certain readers might find the frequent and explicit discussions about sex disturbing and provocative, which was likely the author’s intent, while I think was honest since exploration of sexuality is part of the maturation process. However, it became tiresome after awhile as it seemed to be the author’s preferred way of injecting a plot into a pointless narrative.
Some people may enjoy this book, but it wasn’t for me. I almost wish I was appalled by it, but really I felt apathetic, a far greater crime to this bookworm.