BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Local fans and friends of Ashley Prentice Norton will have two opportunities this summer to hear the Chicago-bred author read from her newest novel, If You Left. The recently released, as in just last month, paperback is a fascinating account of bipolar disorder, marriage, and family. In Norton’s second novel, it is Althea Willow, a wealthy Manhattanite, afflicted by the disorder’s characteristic highs and lows, and her relationship with daughter Clem, husband Oliver, and a man named Maze examined. If you have not already purchased it, this darkly funny and frank novel should move to the top of your summer must-read list immediately.
A cover quote from bestselling author James Frey describes Norton as a fearless writer, and this could not be more apt. From the first sentence, the reader is drawn into the struggle of bipolar disorder, a topic that is close to home for Ashley: the writer has suffered from the mood disorder for several years. Ashley writes and speaks candidly about the disease, bravely relating her own experiences with hospitalization and shock treatments.
“I really wanted to present the bifurcation between depression and mania. I call the depressive stages ‘the Tombs.’ In that state, you feel that you are dead or as alive as a rock. There is no one there with you. Alex and I were recently in Paris and the Catacombs capture that feeling. Then, the opposite is “the Visions.” This is almost like a hallucinatory state where all is bright, beautiful, and intense. You often receive revelations.
“Hospital shock treatment has a real stigma and is rarely written about. There are a lot of wires and it isn’t pleasant, but it is not a lot different than other things. So much of psychotherapy is guesswork. I am a very lucky woman. I am happily married to a wonderful person and have my career. I hope what I write is helpful.”
The great-great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, Ashley has inherited the writing talent of both parents, journalist Abra Prentice Wilkin and the late author and reporter Jon Anderson. She shares, “not writing is not a choice for me – it is something I have to do” and similarly feels drawn to her parents’ writing. In the If You Leave acknowledgements, she credits: “My amazing mother who gets me more than anyone.”
Beach-readers in East Hampton have only to look up to see many of the local haunts visited by Althea during her summer stay in the Hamptons that Ashley captures in her novel. On such spot is Georgica Beach, which, like much of the book, is described with humor and perception.
“It was South of the highway, the equivalent of upper Park or Fifth Avenue, in the city. The sand was smooth, there was no snack bar, and the restrooms were as tasteful as bathhouses.”
Oliver Willow, owner of Spectacle, a company which designs and sells $800 sunglasses, swings by the club on the way to a beach outing with Althea, adopted daughter Clem, and a notorious Parsien named Claire. Oliver, who is not a member, explains that it is known for the best lobster rolls in the East End as well as the best golf course. Ashley writes:
“You could see the clubhouse gleaming in the background like some kind of Brigadoon. It was on the ocean, the green and white flags that flew from its roof beckoned like a receding tide. To Althea it represented all the things she might have had if she hadn’t been sick, things she had long ago given up on: beautiful friends with whom she could lob witty quips back and forth like tennis balls, build beach bonfires with these children and families, or even traveling with them to other clubs: Lyford, Hobe Sound, Round Hill.”
It is in East Hampton where Althea encounters the 21-year-old house painter, Maze. A photographer of provocative subjects, Althea invites Maze to pose after he paints her bedroom silver.
Just like her character Althea, Ashley will be spending the summer in East Hampton, taking the summer off from her writing schedule (save for those two Chicago visits). She’ll be enjoying some much-deserved downtime with husband Alex Norton (son of Betsy and Buzzy Norton) and three children: Alexander, 14 (who will enter Ashley’s alma-mater, Exeter, in the fall), Vanessa, 12, and Camilla, 9.
“I write daily between 8:45 and 4:30 when my children are in school with my pug sitting on my lap, but in the summers Alex asks why am I not out on the tennis court? I can’t think of a better person than Alex. He is very proud of my writing and is always there in the front row supporting me when I give a presentation.”
Her first novel, Chocolate Money, was set in Chicago and based partially on some of her own life experiences. She is currently dreaming up her next novel:
“It will be about intimacy, platonic and romantic. Is it possible that men and women can have a platonic friendship? There is really no place in our culture for coed friendships. We don’t know where to put them. I have the characters in mind but I don’t plot things out to a great degree on paper. My ideas are really a portal.”
A former student at the Latin School of Chicago, Ashley graduated from Exeter, getting her degree from Georgetown and the creative writing program of New York University.
“I was lucky to study with both E.L. Doctorow and novelist Mona Simpson. I enjoy reading books by British women, and the American author and journalist Lionel Shriver.”
We predict that there will be many who say that they are just as captivated by Ashley, and the authenticity, biting wit, and poignancy of her words.
Upcoming local readings by Ashley Prentice Norton: August 25, from 7:00-8:30 pm at the Book Cellar, 4736 North Lincoln Avenue, in Chicago; and August 26, from 6:00-7:00 pm at the Lake Forest Book Store, 662 North Western Avenue, in Lake Forest.