A descendent of John D. Rockefeller, Norton debuts with a coming-of-age novel about another poor little rich girl who suffers neglect and abuse at the hands of her villainous mother.
In 1978 Chicago, 10-year-old Bettina lives in fear and fascination of her mother: Babs Ballentyne, heiress to the Ballentyne chocolate fortune, is an unfortunate cross between Auntie Mame and Mommy Dearest, spoiled, egotistical and despotic. Although Bettina describes her as a blond beauty in the Grace Kelly mold, Babs is unrelentingly crass and hates anything that smacks of intellect or emotion. Whether she loves her daughter is unclear, but bookish, sensitive Bettina irritates the controlling Babs to no end. When Babs discovers a forbidden can of ginger ale in Bettina’s room, she goes berserk and destroys Bettina’s most prized possession. What Babs loves, besides profanity and cigarettes, is sex; and she describes to Bettina in prurient detail the sex she’s enjoying with her married boyfriend, Mack. Over the next couple of years as the relationship waxes and wanes, Mack becomes the one semidependable adult in Bettina’s life, not counting a stereotypical black cook. But shortly after returning to his wife, Mack dies in a drunken car accident. Cut to 1983. Bettina arrives at prep school in New Hampshire alone with one suitcase and a lot of travelers’ checks. She’s not very interested in her genuinely nice roommate (Bettina’s condescending attitudes toward anyone middle class, not to mention her tone of low-key anti-Semitism, may be inherited but limit a reader’s sympathy). Meredith, the preppy mean girl down the hall, becomes Bettina’s obsession, whom she wants to impress and defeat, especially when she realizes Meredith’s on-again-off-again boyfriend is Mack’s son. Soon Bettina is navigating her sexual awakening with side roads into sadomasochism. Babs disappears from the story for a while but shows up in time to ruin a little more of Bettina’s life before her final exit. Bettina ends her flat-footed narration not on a note of growth or self-awareness, but one of enduring blame.
Not enjoyable, even a little distasteful.