Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Chocolate Money, by Ashley Prentice Norton

There have been some hideous mothers in literature, and Tabitha "Babs" Ballentyne, chocolate heiress and mother of Bettina, emerges near the top of that heap. The first part of the book takes place when Bettina, the narrator, is 11.  Babs subjects Bettina to continual verbal abuse; poses nude with an equally unclothed  Bettina on her lap for their annual Christmas card; shares a creepy level of information about her sex life; slaps Bettina (as she bleeds from a head wound that will require 15 stitches to close) when she falls down the stairs while dressed in high heels and performing an inappropriate dance routine to entertain guests at one of Babs' high-concept parties; forces Bettina to walk  into the church during the funeral of Babs' married lover and place a bouquet of white roses on his casket. . . . you get the picture. Desperate for someone to love and approve of her, Bettina gets what affection she can from the family's cook and her mother's lover Mac, who unfortunately dies in a car crash.

In the second part of the book, Bettina is a high school sophomore shipped off to boarding school. There, she falls into a sadomasochistic relationship with an "outsider" boy. When she discovers that her housemate's boyfriend "Cape" is Mac's son, she pursues him as well. Her sexual exploits produce disastrous results. In the last section of the book, Bettina is an adult, working at a literary magazine and trying to build a meaningful life for herself.

I listened to the audio version of the book, narrated by Tavia Gilbert, who gives Babs a voice well suited to her personality. In the second section of the book, she provides a disturbing twist by making the maturing Bettina's voice sound a bit  like her mother's.  With her disastrous sexual acting out and her new Babsesque voice, we cannot help wondering if she is destined to become as despicable as her mother.

This book is definitely not for everyone, with its explicit sex scenes in which Bettina is often being debased and its equally disturbing depiction of an abusive parent. As I was listening to it, I often thought that Babs was such an awful person that she was not believable and I wondered if the author was trying to be funny--but to me there was nothing comic about a child being subjected to this kind of parenting. When I read that the author's life has a number of similarities to Bettina's, I found myself cringing. Yet I kept listening to the book because I cared what happened to Bettina.

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