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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Chocolates for Breakfast
This is the very best kind of story—a tale of imagined sophistication, of New York City apartments, of Hollywood has-beens, of family tragedy, of beatnik intellectuals, of private school crushes, of time traversed through fiction. Chocolates for Breakfast is an incredible novel, but the story of how it comes to exist in this form, to be held in your hands, is equally noteworthy. I’ll start at the point when the novel entered my world, fifty-plus years after its initial publication in 1956, and then we’ll work our way forward and backward as necessary.
A few years ago, a small press crowd-funded a story of mine by promising readers that I would write them a love letter if they bought the story in advance. The love letters were my idea—who doesn’t enjoy getting mail, after all?—and I happily wrote hundreds of them. The letters to strangers were the easiest: I just made something up based on their home address, something along the lines of “You are the most beautiful girl in Virginia Beach.” Letters to people I knew were more straightforward thank-you notes, with a few exceptions. What does one say, for example, to the very nice French and Latin teacher from seventh grade, the one with a pack of contraband cigarettes in his shirt pocket and gorgeous wavy hair? I decided to tell this teacher, whom I refused to call by his first name, exactly how dreamy he’d always been. When the teacher (fine, fine—Kevin, I can call him Kevin) showed up at a reading of mine some time later, I was surprised and flattered. That night he mentioned that his mother had also been a writer, and did I know that? I didn’t. He gave me a copy of her first novel, Chocolates for Breakfast, and I slipped it into my bag, not thinking too much of it.
The book was written when Kevin’s mother, Pamela Moore, was only eighteen years old. It proudly said so on the cover. And that she was to be our American answer to Françoise Sagan: sexy and bold and teenaged! The novel had been out of print for years, and Kevin had been buying up pulpy paperbacks wherever he could. The book he gave me had yellowed pages and an illustrated cover. Kevin hadn’t told me anything about his mother, and so I went into the book blind. All I knew was that the title was electric—what could be more delicious than chocolates for breakfast?
The novel is catnip—delicious and intoxicating. It opens in a boarding-school dorm room, with fifteen-year-old Courtney Farrell and her roommate, Janet Parker, lazing around teasing each other about whether Courtney has gotten too close to her English tutor, Miss Rosen. We also learn in that first scene about Courtney’s family: the girls are just back from vacation, during which Courtney spent a few days marooned at school because both her parents (her publisher father off on an island, her actress mother off in California) thought the other one was taking care of her.
Written in the kind of voice that an older writer would have needed a medium to channel, Chocolates for Breakfast still feels fresh and current—Moore’s narrative is often hilarious with a soupçon of melancholy, the exact recipe for a teenage girl of any era. While things were very different for a teenage girl in the 1950s, some things never change. Her scenes of prep-school boys and grand, empty apartments are precursers to Gossip Girl, complete with morning martinis and endless cigarettes. Once Courtney is summoned to Los Angeles to live with her mother, the action moves to the hazy apartments at The Garden of Allah, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s former home. Characters are in and out of sanitariums. At sixteen, Courtney loses her virginity to a homosexual actor who can’t be bothered even to buy her breakfast. She drinks Cokes at the counter at Schwab’s drugstore.
I fell in love with the book immediately. I felt, as I do about only half a dozen other novels on the planet, that it had been delivered to me at precisely the right moment. I was writing a book about a Hollywood star, and in went The Garden of Allah. I grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (a far cry across the park from the Upper East Side, the only New York neighborhood that matters in Chocolates for Breakfast, but much has changed in the last few decades) and recognized the way my friends and I played at being sophisticated until it became habit, until it became an actual part of our personalities. I quickly passed my copy of the book onto my agent, telling her what I am telling you now: it was a crime for this wonderful book to be out of print. I also told my agent we were going to change that.
What delights me most about Chocolates for Breakfast being back in print is the idea of seeing girls—teenage girls, former teenage girls, teenage girls hidden deep inside the bodies of grown-up people of either gender—clutching copies of the book on the subway, rapt. All readers, regardless of gender, will pass it on to each other, having underlined passages of note. (One of my underlined passages is this: “Courtney was like her mother. If she were drowning, she would wave off the rescuers, in a last gesture of defiance, because they were fisherman in a rowboat and she wanted to be saved by a yacht.”) I now have a 1964 edition of the book, and the largest blurb on the back calls it “appallingly frank,” which I’m not sure is a compliment. Even so, Chocolates for Breakfast stands out for being ahead of the curve and for its witty, knife-sharp tone. Readers who love The Bell Jar, Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Dud Avocado will swoon. The book is as refreshing as a tall glass of vodka and grapefruit juice, like an early morning swim when everyone else is still sleeping off last night’s party.
As I mentioned, I read the novel without knowing the whole story, without knowing how Moore’s own story ended. There is more material about her in the back of this edition, so I won’t include much of it here except to say that Pamela Moore killed herself in 1964, at twenty-six years old, some eight years after this book was published. There are several suicide attempts in the book, and as in The Bell Jar, the real-life struggles of its author cast a pall over the proceedings. It’s hard to read the novel now and not diagnose Courtney, fearing for Pamela’s life, but the book is a novel, and Courtney survives.
I spoke to Kevin recently, both of us giddy with excitement over the book’s re-release. We started talking about the wonderful lightning-bolt title, and how no one ever does eat chocolate for breakfast in the book. There are eggs, there are bloody marys, there are cigarettes and Champagne, but never so much as a pain au chocolat. Kevin said that he thought the word “chocolates” stood in for everything else, for the drinking and the sex and the perfect teenage misery that would have had the book censored left and right. It sounds like a confection, Chocolates for Breakfast, like a treat given to an adolescent on her birthday. Let’s hope it is, over and over again, with all of life’s complicated magnificence tucked safely inside.
Emma Straub is the author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, out now in paperback. Emma and Kevin Kanarek, Pamela Moore’s son, will appear at Housing Works Used Book Cafe onThursday, July 11th, at 7pm.