When I was sent a review copy of The Chocolate Money, I wasn't sure what to expect. It is quite different from my usual reads, and not for the faint hearted. Set in Chicago in 1978, The Chocolate Money introduces us to ten year old Bettina. The only child of hedonistic Babs Ballentyne, heiress to the exclusive Ballentyne chocolate fortune, Bettina is exposed to a wild lifestyle including naked Christmas cards and extravagant parties. Babs treats Bettina partly as an equal, sharing with her the explicit details of the liaisons with her married lover, and partly as an inconvenience who she belittles.
The story then moves on to 1983, where 15 year old Bettina is away at boarding school. Her relationships with peers and teachers are examined, along with the difficulty Bettina has in conforming to societal norms and expectations as a result of her unconventional home life.
I found The Chocolate Money really hard to get into. The first section, where Bettina is exposed to crude sexual tales from Babs was quite disturbing and unsettled me. As a reader I felt very uncomfortable with their mother/daughter relationship. I found it easier to read about Bettina's life away from Chicago, where her friendships and experience of life away from Babs were unveiled. There are still some uncomfortable moments and graphic sexual scenes in this section too though. However, I was interested to know how the story would end, and there was something compelling about the book. Bettina is a fascinating character, as is Babs, and it was their unconventional outlook which kept me reading. I was wide eyed throughout and felt like I had led a very sheltered life after reading The Chocolate Money!
'Packed with unflinching honesty and acerbic wit... the perfect coming-of-age novel that will have you laughing through even its darkest moments' promises Stylist- yet I didn't really find much humour, black or otherwise, in this book. I am sure there will be people who find this a fascinating read. I felt it was well constructed and an interesting concept, but couldn't get past the disturbing elements which left me deeply unsettled.
The Chocolate Money is out now, published by Black Swan.
With thanks to Black Swan for providing me with a review copy of The Chocolate Money. You can find out more about Ashley Prentice Norton and The Chocolate Money here.