Published by Mariner Books
Publication date: September 18th 2012
Call me twisted but when a book opens with a wealthy woman complaining that no one understood her nude-themed Christmas card, I’m going to laugh. And have high hopes that something snarky and fun is about to transpire. Unfortunately, this does not work out in The Chocolate Money.
Babs is the heiress to the Ballentyne chocolate fortune. She and her young daughter, Bettina, live in an amazing penthouse in downtown Chicago. They live lives of unparalleled luxury and emptiness. Bettina’s father is a moot point—he’s never been around and Babs won’t tell her who he is. The Chocolate Money is the sad story of a little rich girl living with a mother who won’t even allow herself to be called mother. Babs’ idea of parenting is to start allowing Bettina wine and cocktails at age 12 so she can build her tolerance and won’t be a sloppy drunk by the time she goes to college. Her ‘education’ also includes hearing every intimate detail of her mother’s sex life with an old family friend. She also has her own Mommie Dearest moments leaving Bettina so broken she burns herself, thinking
If she sees a burn mark on my wrist, she will think it’s a childish attempt to off myself. So I push the lit cigarette into the flesh just above my right anklebone. No blood, just a round red tattoo. Babs will never be able to strip me of this.
Later, she takes up smoking “because it is the only thing I have in common with my mother and it makes me feel less alone.” Bettina is her mother’s confidante when she wants one and a nuisance when she doesn’t. In short, she is an incredibly lonely, precocious, messed up little girl who wants only to have her mother love her.
When the novel skips forward five years, Bettina is at boarding school and her mother is still a nonexistent figure, whose only involvement in getting her ready for school is to give her traveler’s checks and a platinum Visa card. The effect of Babs’ abuse/neglect style of parenting is apparent. Bettina lives in a house with three other girls and a dorm monitor. She discovers that one of the girls, an alpha female at fifteen, is dating the son of her mother’s old lover. She becomes obsessed by this and embarks on a path to ruin the relationship and get the boy for herself.
Coming-of-age novels are always interesting reading but too many consecutively (Dora, The People of Forever) can be psychically draining. Especially in contemporary fiction where angst and self-hatred now manifest themselves in cutting, smoking, and promiscuity. Maybe it’s been that way all along but The Chocolate Money takes the concept to the extreme by jumping into the deep end of the psychological pool of mother-daughter relationships . Bettina is deeply troubled thanks to an impossibly screwed up childhood and the reader will want to respond with sympathy but, unfortunately, the end result is that in many ways, she is now just like her mother. Everything is someone else’s fault and she can’t be held responsible. She is condescending to anyone she feels is beneath her (even if it is a defense mechanism) and abusive to herself physically and sexually. She wants to hurt and be hurt.
The Chocolate Money ends with Bettina at twenty-six and for a moment there is some small bit of hope that she will be able to relegate her mother’s legacy to the past. There is retribution but it comes too late and in the closing sentences Bettina can only blame her mother for all that has gone wrong in her life. Beyond the lesson that excessive wealth seldom results in a normal human being, this book feels as empty as Babs. Like her, the prose is sharp, cold, hurtful, and meant to shock. In that way it succeeds but it is a bittersweet victory at best.