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8 July 2013

Review: 'The Chocolate Money' by Ashley Prentice Norton (2013)

Set in 1980s Chicago and on the East Coast, this electric debut chronicles the relationship between an impossibly rich chocolate heiress, Babs Ballentyne, and her sensitive and bookish young daughter, Bettina. Babs plays by no one’s rules: naked Christmas cards, lavish theme parties with lewd installations at her Lake Shore Drive penthouse, nocturnal visits from her married lover, who “admires her centerfold” while his wife sleeps at their nearby home.

Bettina wants nothing more than to win her mother’s affection and approval, both of which prove elusive. When she escapes to an elite New Hampshire prep school, Bettina finds that her unorthodox upbringing makes it difficult to fit in with her peers, one of whom happens to be the son of Babs’s lover. As she struggles to forge an identity apart from her mother, Bettina walks a fine line between self-preservation and self-destruction.

From the moment I first saw the cover of ‘The Chocolate Money’ appearing on my Twitter timeline, the image has somehow been stuck in my mind. I don’t know what it is, because it’s not that I particularly love the cover image that much, but the title and the photo managed to capture my attention. So, when I received a review copy of the novel (thanks, Transworld!) in the mail, I was quite curious to start reading and discover what the story would be like.

‘The Chocolate Money’ tells the story of Bettina and her mother Tabitha Ballentyne, known as Babs. Babs is the heiress to a chocolate company fortune, which means she can buy and do practically everything she wants. Even though Bettina grows up in a world of luxury and glamour, she misses one important thing and that’s attention. Babs is not your average mother, which makes it tricky for Bettina to try and fit in with the other students at the elite prep school she is sent to. Bettina tries to find her own identity, but with her mother constantly loitering in the shadows of her mind, she finds herself struggling with some typical and some not-so-typical dilemma’s of growing up and becoming your own person.

Babs is probably the most horrible mother I’ve ever come across in the fictional world. She’s incredibly selfish, inappropriate, and has an excessive luxury lifestyle she seems to find more important than anything else. The story is told from Bettina’s perspective, beginning when she is just an 11-year-old girl until she has grown up and is a 26-year-old woman. Ashley Prentice Norton deals with the various rather controversial topics the novel tackles (such as child neglect, underage drinking, all kinds of sexual acts) with a dark, sarcastic sense of humour. Apparently there are traces of her own experiences as a Rockefeller heiress in the novel, which is probably why it all seems absurd, but hauntingly realistic at the same time.   

‘The Chocolate Money’ is definitely not a book for everyone. You must be able to deal with quite some shocking details, as the book is a bit disturbing and messed-up at times. I was fascinated by Bettina’s character from the start and her yearning for attention, trying to showcase this in various ways. I enjoyed reading about her time at boarding school, which included some interesting characters like Meredith, Holly and Cape. The story moves along quickly, which resulted in me finishing the novel after just a few hours. This book has received some great reviews and in a way I can understand why. I think certain readers will definitely enjoy this novel and find it captivating, but I personally found it was all a bit too twisted and too dark for my liking. Overall, an interesting but slightly disconcerting look into the world of the wealthy that focuses around a teenage girl’s unheard cry for attention, which will interest some, but will shock others.

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