Opening lines: “The first time Cora heard the name Louise Brooks, she was parked outside the Wichita Library in a Model-T Ford, waiting for the rain to stop. If Cora had been alone, unencumbered, she might have made a dash across the lawn and up the library’s stone steps, but she and her friend Viola Hammond had spent the morning going door-to-door in their neighborhood, collecting books for the new children’s room, and the considerable fruits of their efforts were safe and dry in four crates in the backseat. The storm, they decided, would be a short one, and they couldn’t risk the books getting wet.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: Only a few years before becoming a famous actress and an icon for her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita to make it big 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 is a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip. She has no idea what she’s in for: Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous blunt bangs and black bob, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will change their lives forever.
For Cora, New York holds the promise of discovery that might prove an answer to the question at the center of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in a strange and bustling city, she embarks on her own mission. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, it liberates her in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of the summer, Cora’s eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.
Comments: When she was chosen to spend the summer of 1922 studying with the Denishawn Dance Company in New York City, fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks–several years away from becoming a silent-film superstar–intended to make it one-way trip out of Wichita, Kansas. But a fifteen-year-old girl doesn’t make a trip like that alone–especially not in 1922–and if her parents can’t accompany her, someone has to, and Cora Carlisle offers herself as Louise’s chaperone. She doesn’t know the Brooks family well, but with her twin sons about to leave for college, her nest is emptying–and she has her own reasons for wanting to spend a few weeks in New York City.
Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone mixes the fictional Cora and her version of the real-life Louise with two elements that are hard for me to resist in fiction: not-so-old New York, and the social and cultural evolution that defines the 20th century. The period from the late 1800s through the 1970s was one of rapid and unprecedented change that gave rise to the modern world we know today, and I’m drawn to novels that explore those changes and their effects on those living in the midst of them. Although Moriarty’s novel is centered on that summer of 1922, it traces Cora’s story leading up to it and follows her through the decades after it.
Another element that tends to pique my interest in fiction–at least partly because I relate to it from personal experience–is the female protagonist whose life changes unexpectedly somewhere around midlife. Depending on the specifics, these stories don’t always work for me, but the premise will usually get my attention, at least. Moriarty did more than get my attention with The Chaperone, though; with Cora, she engaged it fully. Moriarty sets up her protagonists in contrast to one another: Louise is the adventurous, willful girl of the new century, eager for experience, while Cora has nothing left in life but getting older (and I should note that she is 36 during the summer of 1922). She is introduced as a conventional Midwestern matron and mother, but it’s not long before we start to see that first impressions can be misleading. There was so much more to her than I expected, both in her backstory and her “forward-story” from that summer on. I really liked the way she was developed, and I appreciated that there was more to that development than the “Louise and Cora open each other’s eyes and change each other’s lives” trope; there was some of that, granted, but fortunately, that’s not the whole story.