- The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
- Hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (June 5, 2012)
- ISBN-13: 978-1594487019
Who and what is the book about (back-of-the-book blurb): Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will transform their lives forever.
For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.
Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s,’30s, and beyond — from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers, and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women – The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them.
Where and when does it take place: The Chaperone opens in 1922, in Wichita, Kansas. Cora Carlisle (a character completely fabricated by the author) learns that an a woman in town is looking for a chaperone to accompany her 15-year-old daughter to New York for the summer, so that the daughter (Louise Brooks, an actual historic figure) can participate in an exclusive dance program. The vast majority of the book takes place over that summer, the remaining 15% or so show how those five weeks affected both characters throughout their lives (focusing on Cora).
What would I say to a friend who asked me about it: I loved The Chaperone! The history and atmosphere of the period is well-articulated without being about the history. That is, Laura Moriarty incorporates prohibition, integration, changing values/mores, fashions, etc. into the novel seamlessly. Through Cora and Louise (who are about as opposite as two people can be!), we see the traditions and challenges facing many in the US at the time.
From the outset I didn’t like Louise – she had no respect for authority; maybe that’s the parent in me coming out . She was only fifteen the summer she and Cora went to New York, but wanted to be seen as an adult (and a ‘no-holds-barred’ adult at that!). Cora, on the other hand, was only in her mid-thirties, but acted uptight and uncomfortable – she was just no fun. Of course, I knew one (or both) women would change throughout the novel, and I was curious to find out what those changes were and how they happened..
It was Cora who went through the most dramatic transformation, through a reasonable and believable series of events; that, I suppose, is how we ended up with the title, The Chaperone! Cora has a personal reason for wanting to get to New York that summer, one that she shares only with her husband (who, in fact, encourages her). The response to Cora’s quest – and a series of coincidences and a letting down of her guard – begin to widen the crack in Cora’s armor.
Even – or perhaps especially – the ending chapters of the book told me more about the lives of Cora and Louise after that summer. These are told more quickly; years, decades even, are summarized in such a way that the women’s highs (and lows) give us a full picture of who they each have become. This section reminded me a lot of the writing of Jane Smiley (yes, that’s a huge compliment, I believe!), both in style and in the theme of “public persona vs. personal truth.”
Reading The Chaperone has also made me curious about Louise Brooks, a silent film star of the mid-late 1920s; I may read her memoir, Lulu.
Why did I read it: This book was sent to me for review consideration. It was selected as USA Today’s #1 “Hot Fiction Pick” – I suspect we’ll be seeing it in a lot of totes at the beach this summer. The topic lends itself to book group discussion, for its many themes (I can’t enumerate them here, potential spoilers. Trust me.)
A favorite passage: This excerpt, beginning on page 36, is about books, and how Cora was always so careful about the image she projected to those around her:
She’d come prepared with her own reading, which she now took out of her bag. Perhaps she didn’t keep all sorts of books lying around her parlor, but she enjoyed a good story as much as anyone. For this trip, she’d brought a Ladies’ Home Journal and the new novel by Edith Wharton. Normally, she might have stuck with her preferred indulgence, something by Temple Bailey, who could be counted on to deliver satisfying tales of plucky heroines outwitting painted vamps and bringing wayward husbands back into the fold But for this trip, understanding that whatever title she chose would fall under the girl’s critical gaze, and would no doubt be reported back to Myra, Cora had gone to the bookstore and purchased The Age of Innocence, which, although it was written by a woman, had just won the Pulitzer Prize, and therefore seemed beyond reproach from even the worst kind of snob. It was also set in New York City, and though it was set in the previous century, Cora thought it would be interesting to read about the very place that they were headed, to picture long-dead characters walking the very streets that would soon be under her feet. She liked the story so far. And the historical details were lovely, all those carriages and sweeping gowns. Even as the train rumbled through open fields, and the air in the car grew warm with the rising sun, Cora turned the pages easily, feeling virtuous and smart.
I did mark several passages later in the novel, but I’m afraid I can’t share them without spoilers. Read the novel and discover them for yourself!
What else can I add: With the theme of “public persona vs. personal truth” I’m thinking specifically of Smiley’s Private Life (set during WWII), but see also Nichole Bernier’s hot-off-the-presses The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. which looks at this in a more contemporary (post 9/11) setting. The three are set in different periods of US history, but share a common theme of our actions being influenced by the political and social climate of the day, as well as that of the many faces we (especially women) may carry.