Book Review: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The Chaperone
The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Summary:   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.

I read a fair amount of historical fiction but not much that actually features a character who was a world-famous celebrity. Admittedly, I know precious little about Louise Brooks (even after reading this) & I think that lent to my enjoyment of the story. I wasn't looking for a deep accounting of her life or to compare what was already known. Louise is simply the means in this story for us to journey with Cora finding herself. Honestly, Louise needn't have been "Louise" for me to have enjoyed the journey. She's not much used & so seemed like an afterthought for much of the story, that I didn't connect deeply to her & in the end, didn't feel she added more to the story than some unknown, random sniping teenage girl (read: choose a weeknight & turn on the CW or an ABC Family show) would have. That Louise toted Schopenhauer didn't really make her more interesting or relevant to the story.

Cora's story is very well rendered and while I grew tired of her tendency to be scathingly judgmental, stunningly short-sighted & severely lacking in imagination, I appreciated where she was coming from. Her life was the personification of unconventional & she knew it but she worked a good bit of her life trying to craft a perfect facade & trying to forget or deny what was actually so. Given the time in which she grew up & lived when we meet her in the story, she has good reason to keep at it. But bit by bit, things gnaw at her & we see her change as she grows while on this trip to NYC. She's seeking to find herself. Not just where & who she came from but also who she is now & hopefully, who she can become. It's a very poignant story & I must admit that I was most emotionally invested in the Kaufmans & Mother Kaufman in particular. That Cora was so in touch with the knowledge that she was loved by her adoptive parents & had such a sweet relationship with Mother Kaufman just got me every time (the letter that Mother Kaufman had written to the sisters at the orphanage just about did me in). I did feel a bit of cynical glee when Cora finds her birth mother & the parallels to Cora's skilled lifetime of facade building. I was glad that Cora was so put off & bothered. There are other emotional hallmark moments in the story & made Cora's more annoying turns tolerable. Louise wasn't entirely wrong when she tagged Cora as a rube. Even when I wanted to throttle her, I still rooted for her.

My only problem with the book was the last third. It spanned many, many years & ran through future developments in Cora's life with her family mostly. It was good to know how her trip had lasting change in her life but it all felt a bit disjointed. It wasn't told in the cohesive narrative that the first two thirds of the book. The added parts of Louise & her fate along with her mother's really felt unnecessary. As I wrote at the outset, I wasn't that connected to Louise so it felt like a lot of dressed up info-dump and wasn't terribly interesting.

And somewhere around the 90% mark I began to feel that the story was already done. Cora changed & the world was changing still around her. It was just her insight on the times & I think it could have been wrapped up a lot sooner. Though I did very much enjoy reading about Alan & Raymond. All of the threads of morality & mores were some of my favorite aspects of the book. I was glad to see among other things, The Purity Myth in the author's Acknowledgments. Overall this was a good book & wonderful for a weekend trip or while passing time at the airport. I would read another by Laura Moriarty.

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