Not every rediscovered classic is a classic, but this sharp, melancholy, often humorous, book is a small masterpiece. Published in 1956 when Moore was 18, it was briefly a best-seller and compared to the work of Francoise Sagan.
In this gorgeously-written novel, the heroine, Courtney Farrell, is the precocious 15-year-old daughter of a Hollywood actress and a New York publisher. At Scaisbrooke Hall, a boarding school in Connecticut, she has only two friends: Janet, her debauched roommate, who has been expelled from every school she has attended, and Miss Rosen, an intense, probably lesbian English teacher.
I imagine these girls from a teacher’s perspective, because my first job out of grad school was teaching Latin at a “Country Day School” kind of place. The faculty fumed about the nouveau riche students, who drove Mercedes and BMWs, were excused from exams for flying lessons, and reputedly spent their vacations in Europe with boys in hot tubs. Although I liked my charming, smart, if sometimes overly-sophisticated, students, I found it best to ignore their vaguely repugnant life-styles. Later I taught at a Catholic school, where the girls were smart but the values and discipline were, in my view, superior. (N.B. It is difficult for a teacher to compete with flying lessons, and a surprising number of teachers left and found jobs at Catholic schools.)
Moore begins her novel with a lyrical description of a very traditional boarding school. All is so peaceful that we are unprepared for the agony of the characters.
Spring at Scaisbrooke Hall was clearly the most beautiful time of all. All the alumnae said so as they remembered the apple blossoms in the quadrangle, and the grass growing long and fresh beside the brook, where illegal Cokes were placed to keep them cool for clandestine drinks before the evening study hall. …Scaisbrooke had been founded sixty years ago on the pattern of English public schools, and its high-beamed halls were dark and heavy with tradition.
Much of the novel is told in dialogue. Through her conversations with Janet, we understand that Courtney has spent so much time with adults that she is uninterested in her peers. The erratic, boozy, sophisticated Janet thinks Courtney should spend more time with boys.
“Oh, I don’t mean to say that you’re naive or anything. I just think you ought to make out with boys a little.”
“But prep school boys are so grubby. They have bad skin, and they press your hand and their palms are all wet, and they are so awkward! I mean, I like these actors who are so charming and put their arms around you with a Martini in one hand and all that. I like men who are older.”
Courtney is devastated when Miss Rosen, who has lent her Finnegan’s Wake, breaks off their friendship (probably ordered by the headmistress). Janet gives her a drink and urges her to get to know some other students, but Courtney sleeps and sleeps until she is taken to a psychiatrist. Then Sondra, her mother, decides to make a home for her in Hollywood.
The Hollywood scene is mostly drinking and sex, just as we would expect. At 16, Courtney is allowed to drink, and spends most of the day doing just that. Soon Sondra is on the skids, and they are living in a dark one-room studio on a strip on the edge of Beverley Hills. Courtney is so desperate that she seduces a friend of her mother’s, a homosexual actor in his late twenties. As she later tells Janet, it doesn’t matter that he is “a fag,” because he can perform in bed anyway.
But after they break up, she cuts herself and ends up in a mental hospital. Things have gotten out of hand, her father, long-divorced form Sondra, realizes: he brings them back to New York and pays their rent.
New York is no healthier than Hollywood. Did we expect it would be? Courtney and Janet become friends again, and drink from morning to night, attend all-night parties, and have sexual relationships with older men.
They live like the most dissipated alcoholics, and have no interest in anything outside of their party life. I won’t describe their downward spiral, but it is horrendous, realistic, and tragic.
Moore wrote a few more books, but, alas, committed suicide at 26. In the Harper Perennial paperback, there is an introduction by the writer Emma Straub, a fascinating essay by her son, a 1997 article about Moore from The Baffler, and a comparison of the three texts of Chocolates for Breakfast. (The French edition was racier than the American edition.)
Alas, Moore’s other novels are out-of-print, but I will look forward to reading more Harper Perennial Rediscovered Classics.