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.
I first heard of this book when a few patrons came in looking for a copy for their book club. They were intrigued by the premise – kind of a “Mommy Dearest” meets “Poor Little Rich Girl” vibe, and when they came back after their book club, I asked for their thoughts. They told me that this book had inspired some of the best discussion they had ever had in their club meetings, so I immediately added it to my GoodReads shelf.
The Chocolate Money reads like a memoir, and it’s easy to forget that this is fiction at times, especially in today’s world of celebrity culture and outlandish goings-on such as the Kardashian/West pairings amidst others. When truth is sometimes more outlandish than fiction, the lines begin to blur. Having said that, there are times in the first few chapters where you truly feel for Bettina and her awful, narcissistic mother. Her mother does not believe in boundaries to any degree, and shares highly inappropriate details of her life with her daughter, passing on a skewed world view that Bettina to figure out who she is. Once Bettina heads off to boarding school, you exhale a sigh of relief that she may just have a chance at a normal life after all. Alas, that isn’t to be, as sadly the sins of the mother are vested upon the child in this case, knowingly or otherwise.
I had a hard time with this one. No one is particularly likeable in the story, and you want to yank everyone out by the ear to lecture them about what is and is not appropriate. Bettina’s mother, Babs, is a lonely, insecure narcissistic horror of a mother, ranking up with Joan Crawford (Mommy Dearest) and Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin) as a possible Worst Mother of the Year. Unfortunately, Bettina didn’t endear herself to me either, although I did feel that she was given a pretty raw deal of things and wished that she had at least one friend she might have kept throughout the story. The secondary characters came and went, and while the identity of Bettina’s father was supposedly a mystery, I had it figured out once the character had been introduced.
For me, the story picked up when Bettina went to boarding school, and I think we learned more about her as a character. I began to warm more towards her at that point, although I still found her to be weak and more a caricature of her mother than a fully formed individual in her own right. Having worked in a boarding school, the slyly subversive and systematic process of female bullying was true to life, and I could picture the girls treating each other in just that fashion. The twist at the end was a good touch, but I finished the book wondering if she was heading down the same self-destructive path as her mother, or if she would make something of herself out of the ashes of her previous life.
Additionally, when you consider the news about a popular CBC personality’s proclivities this week, some of the sections about violence and consent, and about how we view women and their sexuality were particularly hard-hitting and very close to home. I thought the author did a great job with demonstrating how people just accept certain behaviours from certain people just because of who they are, and how violence and condemnation differs, depending on who the abuser or victim might be.
Ultimately, this would have been a great cottage read. I didn’t think too much about it once it was done, but it was certainly entertaining enough as I was reading it.
The Chocolate Money is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and distributed by Thomas Allen in Canada. ISBN: 9780547840048, 288 pages.
What did you think of The Chocolate Money? Leave your thoughts below, and join us for our discussion over on GoodReads! Join us for next month’s read, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” by Emily M. Danforth.