James threw a fun curve ball at me recently. He suggested we read and blog about Chocolates for Breakfast together. Why have we never had this brilliant idea before? We’ve been running Message in a Bottle for two years now and always toss ideas back and forth. So it’s about time we lined up our reading schedules and hashed our opinions out online. We are different readers and I’m not quite sure how this little public book club experiment is going to go, but if it’s anything like our editorial meetings I’m sure it’ll be a good time.
A little background, first, but be warned there are spoilers in this paragraph. Chocolates for Breakfast is a coming-of-age novel written in 1956 by then-eighteen-year-old Pamela Moore. It was a huge bestseller but eventually went out of print in 1967. The publisher recently decided to revive Chocolates for the first time in 45 years. The plot revolves around fifteen-year-old Courtney Farrell, whose parents have put her in boarding school following their divorce. Her mother is an aspiring actress in Los Angeles and her father lives in New York. Courtney develops a crush on a female professor who rejects her, and her roommate and close friend Janet watches her sink into a depression. Eventually Courtney’s mother takes note and invites her to come and live in LA. Courtney goes and enters a world of sophisticated and jaded adults. She experiences her first romantic affair with an older homosexual actor, which ends after he returns to his male lover. Her mother fails to find work, but her father’s financial situation improves and he offers to finance a move to Manhattan. There Courtney reconnects with her school friend Janet, who lives with her abusive and alcoholic father and depressed mother. Janet brings Courtney into a world of alcoholic rich kids. Eventually Courtney takes up in a loveless and strange affair with Janet’s ex-boyfriend, a European rich kid who lives in a hotel with his parents’ money. A more practical and strait-laced suitor enters Courtney’s life at the same time that Janet moves in with her to escape her father’s abuse. When Courtney’s mother gets fed up and sends Janet home, Janet finds her mother has entered a sanitarium. After a terrible encounter with her father, Janet jumps off her balcony to her death. The novel ends with Courtney ending her affair with Janet’s ex and heading off to dinner with her practical new boyfriend, presumably to clean up her act and grow up.
Okay, friends, that sums it up. Now I’m turning the conversation towards James. Feel free to listen in and participate by leaving your comments below.
Miriam: First of all, what was it that appealed to you about Chocolates for Breakfast and gave you the idea that we should read it together? I was initially surprised you would be interested in a girl’s coming of age novel, since you’re not the typical audience for this type of book. I suspect it was the backstory more than the premise that caught your eye. As you know I naturally gravitate towards this kind of thing, being that Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld is one of my favorite novels. The problem is so many are poorly written. That’s not the case with CFB. If anything, I was shocked that a teenager actually wrote it. The voice is so mature it’s hard to believe the protagonist (and especially the author) was so young.
James: What? I have a lengthy track record of appreciating such novels. There was … let me see … The Bell Jar, and …. I’m sure there was another one. OK, you got me. Without the backstory I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up at all. When I heard that the publisher wanted to resuscitate a book that was more than five decades old, I was intrigued, and then I read a fascinating interview with the author’s son at The Rumpus that sealed the deal. He never knew his mother; you mentioned above that Moore was a teenager when she wrote CFB, but not that she killed herself less than ten years later, while her infant son slept in the next room. I don’t usually care too much about the autobiographical aspects of fiction, but the knowledge I had about her life (not just her death) made CFB feel almost like a novel within a novel for me.
I certainly wasn’t disappointed in it. As you say, it’s much better written than most similar books. There might be a few too many mentions of “slim, young” bodies, but otherwise Moore’s very careful with her words. I particularly liked this observation about Los Angeles: “The palm trees, of course, were lit by floodlights because it is man’s business to improve upon actuality.” Note the 1950s-appropriate use of the masculine general there.
It’s not too surprising that she could capture Courtney’s voice, but she also manages to get very successfully into the heads of several older characters. When Sondra’s bothered by Barry at the bar, the narrator says on her behalf, “The best way to treat a difficult child was to ignore him.” Sums up Sondra’s philosophy on child-rearing pretty well. Detachment parenting, anyone?
One of the other appealing things about CFB was its bookishness. I love that Moore felt comfortable name-dropping Finnegans Wake so often (although it always appears with an unnecessary apostrophe, which I’m going to blame on an over-zealous copy editor in 2013).
But the most delicious aspect is probably the scandal of it all. You probably have to read something at least this old to get such a strong sense of taboo-busting. I don’t think Moore set out purely to shock, though. I think she was trying to talk in a serious way about the effects constraint has on young women, especially American women. But you are one of those, so you’re better positioned to comment on that.
(continued in part two)