” Ah, Cora thought, smiling a little. Someone actually had the girl’s approval. Louise also admired her mother, of course, as well as the older girl named Martha at Denishawn who Louise said was the best dancer she’d ever seen. So it was a club of only three. Everyone else, as far as Cora could tell, only earn the girl’s scorn.” (Ch.9, p.133)
In 1922, when 15-year-old Louise Brooks is about to leave Wichita for a summer in New York City and the avant-garde Denishawn school of dance, Cora Carlisle jumps on the opportunity to be the chaperone. She is neither a relative nor a friend, just a respectable neighbor who lives a staid life and whom the Brooks hire for propriety’s sake. Although the girl does not even feign affection for her chaperone, and treats Cora with the most outrageous condescension, Cora has her own reason for making the trip. She is to investigate and locate, if not her parents, at the records of her birth. She had been adopted and raised by foster parents in Kansas.
Cora wanted to kick her. She was mad enough to lean down and pull the girl up for a quick, hand shake that might have sobered her enough to understand that the matter at hand was very serious, and that none of her usual belligerence would be tolerated. She’d been out with a boy, unchaperoned and falling-down drunk. (Ch.15, p.243)
Cora knows the young, stunningly beautiful Louise Brooks is a hands full: she is supercilious, egotistic, and is totally heedless of conventions. While protecting her from being compromised, Cora is astounded that Louise has already lost her virginity. She fears for her, whose unruly behavior reminds her the mistake of her own mother, who became pregnant and gave her away to hide her humiliation. Knowing she can never be acknowledged as her mother’s daughter, she fears the same fate for Louise.
It’s in New York City that summer that Cora finds her shine—upon meeting a German widower, it dawns on Cora that she has lived too much of her life so stupidly, following nonsensical rules. She has been a provincial matron with no capacity for turning hands. While Louise pursues mindless flirts and advances her career, Moriarty shifts the focus on Cora, who turns out to have bigger share of dark secrets in regard to her marriage.
. . . and Joseph was still and quiet as Cora talked. She told him about Howard and Earle and how much she loved them, and how even they didn’t know. She told him that even she and Alan talked and acted as if nothing were amiss between them . . . (Ch.13, p.210)
The Chaperone is a very engrossing read with sustaining revelations about a heroine who discovers herself as she ages. The book gets better as Cora grows some backbone, talks straight, and truly seeks what she desires. As the novel returns to Wichita, where Cora reemerges with a potentially shocking (socially unforgiving) living arrangement that is way ahead of its time. This book is filled with insight about what constitutes family and rooted very firmly in love. Cora’s story obviously outshines that of Louse, whose Hollywood career flames out quickly and spirals into alcoholism and eventually poverty. Cora sums up her journey best: “The young can exasperate, of course, and frighten and condescend, and insult, and cut you with their still unrounded edges. But they can also drag you, as you protest and scold and try to pull away, right up to the window of the future, and even push you through.” The novel does a good job showing the social upheaval that impinged and spilled to every corner of the country in the 1920s. The citizens confronted everything from the KKK and prohibition to illicit sexual relationships and the display and sale of prophylactics in drug stores. The Chaperone is an introspective story that involves a real character and uses known facts as means to wrap around a fictional character’s story.
371 pp. Riverhead Books. Hardback. [Read/
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