“The Chocolate Money” by Ashley Prentice Norton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $15.95)
CHICAGO — Scientists have yet to prove that there is a genetic predisposition to good writing, but as they continue the search they would do well to read “The Chocolate Money,” the first novel by a former Chicagoan named Ashley Prentice Norton.
This novel, which its author says is “semi-autobiographical,” is the coming-of-age story of Bettina Ballentyne, the child of a wealthy candy heiress being raised in a Lake Shore Drive penthouse by a flamboyant mother and later spending time at an East Coast boarding school. It is a darkly comic, more than a bit sexy and very polished book, which one hyperbolic publicist describes as “ ‘Mommie Dearest’ meets the Playboy Club.”
An excerpt that ran recently in Town and Country magazine was saucily headlined “Money Dearest: Secrets and lies from the wicked witch of Windy City.”
Norton is the daughter of former Chicago Tribune reporter Jon Anderson and his former wife, Abra Prentice Wilkin, the great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller. They began their careers as reporters and teamed to write a snappy gossip column for the bygone Daily News and later start a magazine called The Chicagoan, at which I worked as a young reporter for its 18-month existence.
Both remarried. Anderson has been retired for a few years, and Wilkin devotes most of her time to charitable and philanthropic endeavors. I have known both for decades; admired and respected them too. I knew Ashley when she was a kid.
The book is dedicated to both parents. Their reactions could not be more different.
Wilkin is not at all happy with the fictional mother in the book, whose name is Babs.
I can understand the mother’s feeling, and so might you: “Babs is beautiful, and I wish I looked like her. Babs’ legs are right in front of me and like she says, they are so (expletive) fabulous. Since I am her daughter, I think she might let me touch them once in a while. 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.”
That’s pretty harsh, and Wilkin did not want to talk about the book with me. But Norton says: “We have had a falling out. We don’t talk. But this book is not a memoir. Yes, it incorporates a lot of elements from my life, memories, but this is a work of fiction and so is Babs.”
Norton is married to Alex Norton, who works in the asset management business. They have an apartment in Manhattan and a house in East Hampton, N.Y. They have three handsome children, two girls and a boy, ages 10 or under. A few years ago she was diagnosed with manic depression, and she recently detailed the six-month tussle with that disease in a moving and forthright article in Redbook magazine titled “Mom, interrupted.” She and her family come out winners.
The seeds of “The Chocolate Money” go back nearly 20 years, when Norton was earning a Master of Fine Arts at New York University and where one of her mentors was the great writer E.L. Doctorow. “That was when I found my voice, certainly the voice of my character in the novel,” she says.
Writing took a back seat to other things: getting married and raising a family. She later enrolled in writers’ workshops and writing groups, and her novel started to come to life.
“I think that it is an honest book, and I do take full responsibility for the story,” she says.
“I am 41 and I do love my mother and hope that we can someday have a dialogue.”
As for her father, he could not be more pleased, accompanying her on a recent trip here for book signings at several local shops.
“I am immensely proud of what she’s accomplished,” Anderson says. “She goes into this novel like a reporter, with a stunning eye for detail. Unlike the child in the book, she’s pretty straight-arrow. And she seems to have somehow picked up, and used well, all the writerly tips that I myself learned when I took a two-year leave of absence from the Tribune and went off to Iowa City to spend two years in the graduate writers program.”
Then he adds, fatherly pride charmingly trumping all reason, “To me, she’s today’s successor to Jane Austen, Edith Wharton and Marcel Proust.”