Shocking Fiction by Dangerous Women

Chocolates for Breakfast

After nearly 50 years out of print, Pamela Moore’s nihilistic bildungsroman Chocolates for Breakfast is back, in an edition bursting with extras. The book’s frank treatment of a teen girl’s unsentimental education caused a wave of pearl-clutching on its publication in 1956, and it retains the power to disturb. Aged 15 at the outset, protagonist Courtney has a glamorous, neglectful parent on each coast, and and an inner life that’s a sour-sweet blend of a child’s magical thinking and a woman’s budding self-awareness. Moore was 18 when the book came out to instant acclaim; eight years and four books later, she killed herself at age 26. To celebrate her novel’s resurrection and its enduring edge, here are some other controversial classics from women writers (some spoilers ahead!):

Bonjour, Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan. This slim novel by Gallic badass Sagan followed a trajectory similar to that of Chocolates for Breakfast—it came out when its author was 18, and proceeded to shock, titillate, and sell like hotcakes (and was later adapted into a movie starring a cropped Jean Seberg). It centers on Cécile, the icy teen daughter of a handsome philanderer, whose jealous machinations over the course of a seaside summer contribute to the apparent suicide of one of her father’s lovers.

The Group, by Mary McCarthy. If you’re in need of some air after navel-gazing with Courtney and Cécile, McCarthy’s book is the perfect palate cleanser. Following the post-collegiate lives of eight graduates of Vassar’s class of 1933, it grew out of a short story, first published in 1954, titled “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself.” That story would become part of The Group‘s most infamous storyline, detailing a “nice girl’s” flirtation with casual sex. The Vassar women weather money troubles, bad marriages, sexual assault, and worse, emerging at book’s end to attend the funeral of one of their own.

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin. The revelatory experience referenced by the novel’s title begins when its protagonist, an obedient wife and mother, falls in love with another man. This breach opens her up to a world of choice and experience beyond her limited existence. Her attempts to live outside of society’s constraints, including experiments with sex, independence, and art, are insufficient; the novel ends with her final, fatal bid for freedom.

Forever, by Judy Blume. This clear-eyed account of a high school senior’s first sexual relationship has a way of turning up on censorship lists. Blame the fact that heroine Katherine is altogether unconcerned with any “moral” repercussions of premarital sex, instead focusing on its more clear and present dangers (pregnancy, falling for someone new). I couldn’t have been the only 13-year-old to have walked away from this one a little wiser, thanks to Blume’s refusal to euphemize and blush her way through the good parts. How else could a nearly 40-year-old YA novel still make the censors squirm?

  • Katherine

    Look forward to reading these!

  • The Awakening is next on my reading list despite the fact that I’ve read it before. It’s just a great, quick summer read. I can’t wait to track down the rest on this list!

  • Kevin Kanarek

    I love this review. You had me at “pearl-clutching.” But anyone who hadn’t read some of the other books mentioned (Sagan and Chopin) might want to be spared the spoilers!

    I still remember the scene in Bonjour Tristesse when Cecile and her father were writing their notes to Anne, “like dutiful school children,” after she had stormed out of the house..

    • Melissa Albert

      I wish I had more excuses to use that phrase. I added a spoiler alert at your suggestion!

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