The story of the daughter of a glamorous chocolate heiress who must navigate a complex landscape of wealth, sex, and decadence through a privileged childhood in Chicago and an East Coast prep school, with only her narcissistic mother to guide her.
As addictive, decadent and delicious as chocolate itself
Set in 1980s Chicago and on the East Coast, this electric novel 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.
As funny as it is scandalous, The Chocolate Money is Mommie Dearest, Prep, and 50 Shades of Gray all rolled into one compulsively readable book.
THE DAY I CUT my hair and completely fuck up the Christmas Card, I am merely bored, not a defiant brat like Babs tells all her friends.
It is late August. I am ten. Babs is in the kitchen talking to Andie, who comes Saturday afternoons for Bloody Marys and eggs Benedict. Babs doesn’t drink alcohol. She always nurses a Baccarat champagne flute of freshly squeezed juice (grapefruit, plum, raspberry) cut with a heavy pour of Perrier. Fruit has way too many calories. I’m not even sure she likes the taste, but it looks pretty.
“So, Andie,” Babs says, “we are doing the Card tomorrow. I can’t decide if I should go summer or for more of a holiday feel. No matchy-matchy reindeer sweaters, of course, but maybe a tad less controversial than last year’s. I know the nudity was tastefully done, but I don’t want that bitch Nona Cardill writing nasty things about me in her column. That biddy probably never takes off her underwear. And all the calls from school. No sense of humor at all; no points for creativity.”
All the kids in my grade at Chicago Day were really mean when our Christmas Card arrived last year. Yes, we were naked, but I was sitting on Babs’s lap and covered her privates. That didn’t make things any better. They said I was totally weird to have my picture taken without my clothes on. The best I could come up with was that it wasn’t my idea.
“It was very avant-garde, Babs. I still have it up on my fridge,” Andie says.
I think this is kind of creepy. Babs just laughs.
I’m sitting on the floor by the kitchen table, almost out of view, reading Tiger Beat, which has my idol Brooke Shields on the cover. Babs got me a subscription to it for my tenth birthday and it’s one of the best presents she ever gave me. I watch them smoke and ash into their Villeroy & Boch plates—Babs’s “weekend” china. It doesn’t matter that we eat off these plates; Babs can turn anything into an ashtray. She and Andie lean into the white marble island as if they need help remaining upright. Babs wears white short-shorts and a white Playboy bunny tank top, a silver bunny head outlined on it in rhinestones.
Andie wears a brown wrap dress that is so wrinkled it looks like she dug it out from under her bed. She has Birkenstocks on her feet. When she came in, I could see the hair on her toes.
Babs is beautiful, and I wish I looked like her. She has blond hair, which she wears up in a messy French twist, and blue eyes. You might think Babs was Grace Kelly’s twin if GK said words like cock and pussy and hit little kids. Babs always said she would much rather look like Brigitte Bardot, sexy, fluid, and open-ended like an unmade bed, but she doesn’t have the curves to pull it off. She is very tall, five foot ten, and cut like a boy: slender hips, no butt, no boobs.
Babs’s legs are right in front me, and like she says, they are so fucking fabulous. Her calves are shea-butter rich and smell of South African lemons, thanks to her Veritas lotion. She almost never wears pants or pantyhose. She uses their bareness to take advantage of the elements: they goose-bump in the cold, glisten in the sun, go slick in the rain. Since I am her daughter, I think she might let me touch them some time. I hope I will even grow into my own pair one day. But her body is off-limits to me. It is almost as if she were afraid my small hands would leave fingerprints and ruin them forever.
Andie isn’t even remotely attractive, and this is exactly why Babs is friends with her. She has curly hair with gray in it, and big horse teeth. She always agrees with Babs, no matter what.
“That’s the difference between our Card and other people’s. As you know. Don’t just snap something and send it to your friends. Spend some time on it. Surprise people when they open the envelope. I was thinking about a Turning Point theme, both of us with buns and matching leotards. But with a holiday twist. I’m afraid most people won’t get it. It’s just too bad we don’t know Misha. Those fabulous tights.”
I don’t get it. Buns and leotards? Who is Misha? Since when does Babs like ballet?
“Anyone who doesn’t get that movie doesn’t deserve your Card, Babs.”
Today, Andie is surprisingly authoritative, making up standards for Babs’s friends. I think she hopes this Card will narrow the pool of people Babs likes and give Andie more of a shot. As it stands, Andie is just a daytime friend. She’s never invited for dinner when other people come. But Andie thinks if she just keeps showing up, Babs will bump her up on the roster, make space for her at the table. This will never happen. Babs makes up her mind about people and doesn’t allow for upgrades. Like me, Andie is taking the standby approach, but it just doesn’t work. There are always better people available to take the good seats.
Babs spots me listening in on their discussion and says, “Bettina, stop hovering. Go find your own fun.” Hovering is fucking annoying, so I stand up and leave.
Babs says things like this all the time and I am used to it. But still, I don’t want to find something else to do. I’m an only child but completely lack the mythical powers of only-child imagination. Unlike Eloise, I cannot make a day out of fixing a doll’s broken head or spend hours feeding raisins to a turtle.
I do have a nanny, but not the doting or fancy kind. Stacey is twenty and isn’t from England, but Lyons, Wisconsin. Before coming to work for Babs, she lived in a small ranch house with her family. The average tenure of my nannies is about nine months, and Stacey has been with us for two years now. A real achievement.
Stacey’s favorite parts of the job are smoking Virginia Slim menthols (Babs would never hire a nanny who didn’t smoke) and speeding down Lake Shore Drive in the Pacer Babs has given her to use. She reads Cosmo and highlights all the passages on how to drive a man to ecstasy. She really has no interest in me.
I don’t completely blame her. I am a little girl who offers no easy conversation and doesn’t do tricks. I don’t like stickers, don’t play with Barbies, and think cartoons are stupid. What matters to me is someday being friends with Brooke Shields. Babs met her once at Studio 54 and had Brooke autograph a cocktail napkin for me. I was so happy I put it in a Dax frame along with a cut-out picture of her. This is the best thing I have.
Unlike Brooke, I am not gorgeous, or even a tiny bit pretty. I am four-three with flat brown hair that won’t hold curls. Once, Babs tried to give it volume by attacking it with a curling iron, but the only thing she accomplished was burning my scalp. Babs promises that when I turn eleven, she will get me professional streaks for my birthday.
The one thing I seem to have going for me is that I’m thin, and Babs loves buying clothes for me. She spends lots of money on them: suede or leather pants she picks up in Paris, silk-screened T-shirts with Warhol prints on them, gray crinkled-silk pinafores with black velvet ballet flats. But none of this really matters. I’m a match that just won’t strike.
When I leave Babs and Andie, I decid...
"Darkly funny...compulsively readable..."
"A novel to make you laugh, cringe, and appreciate your mother."
--O, the Oprah Magazine
"Debut author Norton, the great-great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, writes fearlessly, and the results are compelling. Reading this novel is like watching a train speed toward you, and you’re paralyzed on the tracks."
“Despite the sweet title, this debut novel by Ashley Prentice Norton is a dark tale of maternal sadism, twisted sex, and self-destruction. Norton is a fearless writer.”
— James Frey, author of Bright Shiny Morning
"I am not a reader easily shocked, and I was shocked by the brave twists and daring turns of Ashley Norton's compulsively readable The Chocolate Money. This story of a girl coming of age in Chicago, heir to a chocolate fortune and all the spoils and hungers that fortune sparks, is fearless and utterly unputdownable."
— Jennifer Gilmore, author of Something Red and Golden Country
"Not since Mommy Dearest has there been a transcription of a complex mother-daughter relationship as powerful. I rooted with all my heart for this girl. Ashley Prentice Norton’s writing is so gripping, vivid, and moving — so realistically drawn — it leaves even the most well-adjusted reader with the chilling knowledge of what it’s like to be raised by wolves. The Chocolate Money is devastating and unforgettable."
— Isabel Gillies, author of Happens Every Day and A Year and Six Seconds
"The Chocolate Money is the perfect page-turner, offering a window into the life of the richer-than-rich, complete with scandalous sex, wild parties, a snobby prep school, and a tyrannical train-wreck of a mother. But it's also something more—it’s a perceptive portrait of a young woman growing past the world that shaped her. Norton writes with empathy and wisdom about mothers and daughters, and the pain of loving a parent you must escape."
-- Jill A. Davis, author of Ask Again Later
“This is the darkest comedy I've ever read, overflowing with unflinching observations of the elite that are both laugh-out-loud and heart-wrenchingly poignant, all woven with the searing wit of a truly gifted new voice in fiction.”
—Jill Kargman, author of Wolves in Chic Clothing
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