I’ve already told you bits and pieces about this book: that it was the first book (but sadly not the last) I felt compelled to buy in spite of my book-buying ban, that I bought it on opening day of the new Green Apple Books in my neighborhood, that the author went to a school where I used to teach and wrote this novel when she was only eighteen years old. I read it very quickly this week – maybe a hundred pages on Monday night, another hundred in bits and pieces during the day on Tuesday, and the last fifty or so pages on Wednesday afternoon. This book is really wonderful. I’m trying not to say or seem to say that it is a wonderful book for an eighteen year-old to write. That sort of statement is condescending and unfair. This book has every quality that I look for in mature fiction: it’s bold, it’s driven forward by action and dialogue, and it’s self-reflective and thoughtful, but only in tiny doses that don’t interfere with its action. It reminds me not of The Bell Jar, which it resembles on the surface, but of Richard Bradford’s Red Sky at Morning, in which a protagonist’s adolescence is narrated in a way that is both deeply dark and incredibly funny. Chocolates for Breakfast is not as funny as Red Sky at Morning, but it’s an equally well-told story.
The protagonist is Courtney Farrell. When the novel opens, she is a fifteen year-old in boarding school with a rebellious roommate, Janet, and an intense need for solitude, which she indulges by walking around the edges of the hockey field in the evening and by exploring the woods around the school. She is also “in love with” a young teacher named Miss Rosen. I read this “infatuation” as more of a brain-crush and as a sign of Courtney’s longing for an older sister or a responsible older friend – there are certainly many incidents later in the novel that suggest that Courtney is quite avidly heterosexual. Miss Rosen “dumps” Courtney – i.e. she tells Courtney not to come over to her apartment in the evenings to talk about literature. In these early chapters, it is clear that Courtney has an inner intellectual and creative life that she mostly keeps secret from others. She writes in notebooks, loves literature, and so forth, and Miss Rosen was filling Courtney’s need for encouragement and approval in these areas. After the termination of Courtney’s “relationship” with Miss Rosen (which I perceive as somewhat cruel but probably also justified), she never shares these aspects of her life with anyone else.
After Miss Rosen cuts her off, Courtney starts sleeping ten or twelve hours a day and still feeling tired when she is awake. This sounds like a mild depression, of course, and Courtney is taken to a doctor who finds nothing physically wrong with her. Courtney mentions that she likes to think about falling from high places, and the doctor concludes that she may be suicidal (though privately, in what is certainly a HPPA violation, he remarks to his wife, “Why shouldn’t the child sleep when she has nothing she wants to be awake for?” (37). The doctor writes to her parents and recommends that she be taken out of boarding school. Her divorced-or-possibly-just-separated parents agree, and Courtney moves to California, where her mother is a struggling movie actress who lives in an apartment complex in Hollywood.
I’m going to take a quick break from my summary to point out something in the last paragraph: the fact that the doctor makes a remark to his wife. This doctor is present in the novel for only about four pages; when I sat down to write this review, I barely remembered that he existed – yet we know what he said to his wife over dinner. This novel is written in the omniscient point of view and succeeds in this technique more soundly than any other novel I have read recently.
I don’t know if any of my writing teachers ever made this statement in so many words, but I definitely came away from my education with the idea that the omniscient point of view was to be avoided. I sort of had an inner ranking system for points of view. First-person was neutral; there was nothing wrong with it – it was easy to do passably but hard to do well, although one was welcome to try. Third-person objective was considered very subtle and artistic, and a writer who could carry out a compelling short story or novel without ever entering into any character’s thoughts, revealing character only through words, actions, and physical description (in other words, only those aspects of character that can be caught with a video camera) should be treated with great respect. But third-person limited point of view was really the litmus test of a writer. The idea in third person limited was that not a single detail should be revealed that wouldn’t be part of the consciousness of the point-of-view character. I was once told not to use the word “toddler” in a story because the protagonist was an elderly man who because of his gender and generation would not have had this word in his lexicon. When I learned this approach to thinking about fiction, my ability to analyze short stories and novels skyrocketed. It can be so interesting to investigate why certain details are revealed instead of others and how the limitations of the protagonist shape the narrative – and what a reader learns by reading in this way is that there is no limit to how subtle characterization can be. I became a better reader and a better teacher because of this approach, but as a writer, I soon became tired of it. If I knew that a detail belonged in a scene or a thought was running through a character’s head, I wanted to put it on the page whether the protagonist would have noticed it or not. I’m always a little amused when reviewers complain that some novels and short stories bear too clearly the mark of their authors’ MFA’s – but I think this loyalty to the third-person limited point of view may be part of what they mean.
I came away from my education with a couple of funny ideas about the omniscient point of view. The first is that I associated it with books like The Sound and the Fury and Ulysses – meaning that I somehow managed to couple it with stream-of-consciousness. I knew that these two techniques weren’t the same thing, of course, but somehow I developed a little voice in my head that said, “Unless you’re prepared to write like Joyce and Faulkner, leave omniscient point-of-view alone. Save it for the tortured geniuses.”
Earlier this year, I took my first fiction workshop in years, and the instructor of that workshop highly recommended the use of the omniscient point of view. His stance was that readers like feeling that they are being carried along by an authoritative voice. The author is the definitive authority on his/her work, and this instructor thought it was somewhat stingy for an author to withhold information that could help a reader to understand a character. Old habits are hard to break – I still don’t do a lot of work in the third-person omniscient point of view, but I’m very aware of it when I read and impressed when I find an author (like Pamela Moore) who successfully manages to write a novel using this technique. It seems like a bold and gutsy thing for a young writer to do, and I’m impressed.
Once Courtney is in Hollywood, a lot of predictable but sad things happen. Her mother is nearly bankrupt (as Courtney learns from her mother’s agent, who tells Courtney this information because he knows her mother will never admit it) and can no longer get the kinds of roles she used to get when she was younger and more beautiful. Courtney enrolls at Beverly Hills High School (where there is no sign of Brenda and Dylan and Donna and Brandon and Kelly – and don’t think I didn’t look for them) and moves with her mother to a studio apartment in a seedy neighborhood where her mother sits in the dark all day awaiting auditions and callbacks. Courtney declines the sexual advances of her mother’s agent but actively seduces a washed-up former child actor named Barry Cabot who can’t get roles because he is no longer adorable – sort of a Ricky Schroeder figure – and is deeply hurt when Barry’s male lover returns to stake his territory. Courtney spends time in a sanitarium, though little is said about that experience (this author’s ability to skim over the surface of an event in a sentence or two while still revealing everything the reader needs to know is yet another reason I am impressed with this novel.
Next, Courtney’s divorced parents – who are both well-intentioned but totally selfish and inept – hold a strategy session and decide that Courtney and her mother will move to New York. Courtney’s father lives there already, and he helps them rent an apartment while Courtney’s mother auditions for TV roles. Courtney quickly reunites with bad-girl Janet Parker and her neverending parade of men, clothes, and alcohol.
The novel ends with a suicide, but Courtney is not the one who kills herself. I’ve seen this technique before and have been thinking about it a lot lately in my own writing: first you prepare your reader for a character to come to a terrible end, stacking up all kinds of imagery to foreshadow what’s to come, and you hurtle your story full-speed toward this end, until at the last minute either you spare your protagonist from this terrible fate via mere coincidence or accident or you allow the terrible event to happen to someone else. When Janet kills herself (OK there – I said it), the reader breathes a sigh of relief. The reader was sure the novel would end with Courtney’s suicide, and by killing off Janet (whom the reader kind of loathes), Moore engineers the catharsis that Aristotle insists is essential to the plot of any tragedy at the same time that she manages to suggest (though not promise) that Courtney will survive all the uncertainty and loneliness of her adolescence. This is a sophisticated trick – sort of a variation of the “transferred epithet” in poetics – and Moore executes it well, reminding me yet again that she deserves to be judged not only against the standards of other eighteen year-olds but against the greats.