Youth, sex and vanity collide in a reprinted novel penned by an author as interesting as her wild, dead-eyed heroine.
“Considered America’s answer to the French sensation Bonjour Tristesse, Chocolates for Breakfast follows Courtney Farrell, a classic disaffected, sexually precocious 15-year-old. Courtney splits her time between Manhattan, where her father works in publishing, and Los Angeles, where her mother is an aging actress. This wild coming-of-age story, scandalous in its day, is also the story of Courtney’s close and ultimately tragic friendship with her boarding school roommate Janet Parker.” (Goodreads
I’ve struggled for twenty minutes to begin this review — a rare thing indeed for this opinionated reader. As I finished the story and the biographical material about Moore’s life, I looked up at my sister and said flatly, “Wow. I really don’t know what to say about this.”
This story was . . . crazed. Frenetic. Haunting. First released in 1956, Pamela Moore herself was only 18 years old when it reached publication. She would take her own life just eight years later, already struggling to recreate the success of her explosive first novel, and it’s hard to separate Pamela from Courtney, her beautiful and morose main character.
The historical climate surrounding Chocolates for Breakfast seems crucial to understanding its significance in the 1950s, but I’ll be perfectly honest: its content isn’t exactly tame by today’s standards, either. Though most of the action happens off-page, 15-year-old Courtney is still day-drinking herself into oblivion, becoming involved with men who actually favor men and privately pining for a female teacher. Themes of alcoholism, sex, depression and homosexuality held shock value for ’50s America . . . and sixty years later, the content is still enough to raise eyebrows. (Mine, especially.)
As I read, I couldn’t help but think of parallels with “Rebel Without A Cause.” Released just a year before Moore’s novel hit shelves, James Dean’s Jim proclaims in the film, “If I had one day when I didn’t have to be all confused and I didn’t have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace. You know?”
Belonging. What a powerful concept. Shuttled between two coasts, Courtney belongs nowhere. She’s used and discarded and taken advantage of by everyone in her life, and her selfish and delusional mother can’t be bothered to look up from a manuscript long enough to pay attention to her only child. Courtney is looking for love “in all the wrong places,” as they say, and her desperation to be accepted and treasured settles on her skin like a musk. The men in her life exploit that desperation handily, and it’s heartbreaking to read. It really is.
But it’s all so frustrating, too.
Despite feeling for Courtney, I never felt with Courtney. She did not endear me. She’s messed up and self-absorbed and emotionally vacant, and I vacillated between finding her completely intolerable and an object to be pitied. (Maybe both.) I can appreciate a book without liking its main character, though, and whether I liked her isn’t really the point. I was invested in her twisted journey and wanted her to snap out of her stupor long enough to realize she could turn her life around.
Like “Rebel Without a Cause,” Courtney seems to have no reason to be so wildly unhappy. Her family life is a shambles, yes, but the issues she faces in the story wouldn’t necessarily crack a modern reader. With divorce so prevalent in current society, the explosion and destruction of her “perfect nuclear family” wouldn’t be so shocking today. But Courtney’s overblown, inappropriate behavior — a reaction to her parents’ disinterest — is what makes Chocolates for Breakfast so hard to put down.
Because make no mistake: this book is crazy, but it’s crazy good. With a foreword by Emma Straub detailing its current path to reprinting, I found myself equally fascinated by Pamela Moore — and her tragic fate. Learning more about her personal history shed additional light on Courtney and her personal decisions, which added another layer of complexity to this already-complex story.
Masterfully crafted with language that guides without becoming explicit, Chocolates for Breakfast still manages to feel contemporary more than half a century after its young author brought Courtney to life. Fans of character-driven fiction and ’50s-era novels will find merit — and real depth — in Moore’s work. It’s truly memorable.
4 out of 5!