The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

March 12, 2013

Plot summary (from the publisher): 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—Laura Moriarty’s 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.

Warning: Major spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Cora was an interesting character. She was likable despite some annoying traits and beliefs, and she ended up having more depth than initially expected. Since the reader had to spend so much time seeing things through her eyes, it was critical that she be relatable — and in this aspect, I think the author succeeded.
  • I didn’t anticipate the twist about Alan (Cora’s husband) being gay. I knew that he was faking his “illness” the day of the amusement park trip, and when Cora returned home early I figured she would find him with someone else. I just had no idea it would be a man (Raymond) instead of a woman! But I liked the twist. It explained a lot about their marriage and of course worked to set up the whole second half of the novel.
  • Although Cora spent most of the time in New York worrying about Louise’s sexual promiscuity, she’s the one who ended up having extramarital relations. Did Louise’s blase attitude towards sex open up Cora’s mind to the possibilities? I believe so, because prior to being with Louise Cora gave absolutely zero indication that she would even entertain the notion of an affair.
  • I thought it was rather bold of Cora to just bring Joseph home with her and demand that Alan accept her lover as a permanent house guest. Cora did it because she felt Alan “owed” her something for their sham of a marriage. Even so, that was quite a move to make. And I’m surprised the gossipy folks around her never surmised that Joseph wasn’t actually Cora’s brother (what a thin lie that was). I guess it just goes to show how straight-laced Cora had been up to that point.
  • I liked that Cora continued to invite Raymond over for dinner even after Alan died. She recognized how lonely he must have been, and knew that he would appreciate being around folks who knew the truth about him and Alan.
  • Cora wasn’t the only character that showed surprising depths beneath the surface. Louise Brooks, who went on to become a controversial writer in Europe once her Hollywood film career sputtered. I enjoyed the fact that Cora’s pep talk turned out to be precipitating event that got Louise out of Wichita and back on track in New York (at least in the book).

Disliked:

  • While the first half of the book was very structured and focus, the second half became more sprawling and rambling. Instead of focusing on a specific time (such as the New York trip), the author glossed over six decades of Cora’s life. This was still interesting, but not nearly as riveting as the first half IMO.
  • I didn’t understand Cora’s attraction to Joseph. What was it about him that she liked so much? Just the fact that he helped her get her adoption records? He seemed rather bland and boring, so why choose him as her lover and ultimate life partner? Was it just that he was accessible?
  • I didn’t like how the author made Cora involved (at least tangentially) in so many social issues, including women’s suffrage, the availability of contraception, Prohibition, the plight of unwed pregnant women, and even gay rights. She wasn’t an activist, so what was the point of all this? I could understand, given her own background as an orphan, wanting to be involved with Kindness House (for pregnant women), but not any of the other stuff.

Rating:

I had never heard of Laura Moriarty before, so I didn’t know what to expect from The Chaperone. The book had received lots of positive reviews, to be sure, but that doesn’t always indicate a slam-dunk. In this case, the positive reviews had some merit. The Chaperone turned out to be highly engaging with a likable protagonist and an interesting story. I didn’t read it for Louise Brooks, so I wasn’t disappointed with her limited role here. Cora carried this one through and it turned out to be pretty good. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

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