12:47 pm Sep. 20, 2012
The Brooklyn Book Festival got underway this week, but the Upper East Side has a literary life of its own. Tuesday night, at The Corner Bookstore, Ashley Prentice Norton celebrated the release of her first novel, The Chocolate Money.
Norton is the great-great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller. Her heroine’s family money comes from candy instead of oil—but like Norton, Bettina grows up in 1980s Chicago with a flamboyant socialite mother, and leaves home for an East Coast boarding school. The crowd at Tuesday's party erred on the side of prep rectitude: ties for men, tasteful highlights for women. The author of How to Look Expensive would be visiting the store two nights later, but her advice seemed mostly superfluous.
The Corner Bookstore’s jewel-box scale required Norton to stand behind the counter for her reading, nestled between a vase of pink snapdragons and an antique cash register. She began with thank-yous, then repeated some wisdom from her friend Susan Cheever.
“Nobody’s really interested in the reading, they just want to hear gossip.”
In that spirit, I’ll summarize: Yes, Norton’s mother once sent out a naked family Christmas card photo. Yes, she threw “a lot of epic parties, ” including one construction-themed gathering that featured strippers in tool belts. She also tried to take her children to Studio 54. And she really did live in a house-sized apartment (“aparthouse”) on Lake Shore Drive. Yes, Norton’s family has read the book. Her dad likes it. Her mom isn’t speaking to her.
Norton’s hands shook visibly as she read, but as a mother of three, she had a practiced bedtime-story voice. Her selection described the preparations for a “hangover brunch cruise” party, at which an 11-year-old Bettina wears a white bikini with blue high heels and falls down a spiral staircase while lip-synching “Tits and Ass” for friends of her mother, Babs.
During the Q&A, one guest asked whether Norton had found an age-appropriate way to share excitement over the book with her own children, who are ten, eight, and five.
“My daughters were more excited about my outfit,” Norton said. She wore black platform heels, black shorts, a sequined blouse, and a fur trimmed vest. Her ten-year-old son had greater curiosity about the book than his little sisters, and he had wanted to come to the reading.
“I told him that it’s something he can do when he’s older,” Norton said. “He can read it when he’s older. But he’s very proud. He took it with him to school one day and showed his English teacher.” He goes to a Catholic school, and the book’s first sentence contains the word “fuck.” Norton was mortified.
Also mortifying: “I was asked, I will say, to be on Real Housewives of New York,” she said. “And they presented it like, ‘We’ve got a big opportunity!’” She declined, of course.
After the reading, Norton and her guests walked to a friend’s Park Avenue apartment a few blocks away. The reception was tame by the standards of Babs’ aparthouse, but decadent by the standards of debut fiction. Scattered on tables were chocolate gold coins, candy bars printed with lines from the book, and stacks of the Town and Country issue that ran an excerpt of the novel (“50 Shades of Rockefeller: A Scandal Begins”).
Norton took a break from mingling to explain the book’s genesis.
“I was in the NYU creative writing program,” she told me—she had enrolled in grad school after graduating from Georgetown. “I got the idea for Babs, but I didn’t really have a narrative arc. And they do short stories there, not novels, so I kind of graduated not knowing how to do a novel.” She set the project aside to pursue an English lit Ph.D.; when she decided to return to it, she enrolled in a workshop at the 92nd Street Y. Agent Bill Clegg’s then-girlfriend was in Norton’s writing group, and when Clegg read a chapter of what would become The Chocolate Money, he asked Norton if she had anything else he could read. She didn’t.
“I just had it in my head: finish the novel, call Bill Clegg.” It took fifteen years: in that time, she had started a family, and Bill Clegg had gone from literary wonder boy to crack addict and back again. “I tracked him down the day I finished it,” she says.
Clegg, whom she calls “an amazing man,” was also in the crowd Tuesday night, looking pristine in a white Lacoste polo. Both he and Norton have survived rough times: for Norton, not just the wild upbringing she's now fictionalized, but also a struggle with manic depression that she recently wrote about in Redbook; for Clegg, the addiction that he’s chronicled in two memoirs. And they’re both testaments to the city’s embrace of social shape-shifters, which the Chicago native calls one of her favorite things about New York.
“You can be a writer,” Norton said, “and you can also be an Upper East Side mom.”
More by this author:
- New York novelists on the dirtiest word in contemporary fiction: experimental
- 'Mrs. Shandy': The life and opinions of Julie Klausner, comedian