I think I wasn't the only person to be drawn to Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone because of my interest in silent film star Louise Brooks. She graces the cover of the book by the way. It was a little tantalizing to think of reading a fictionalized account of her extraordinary life, but I quickly learned that while she may be the hook, the story was really about the woman who acts as her chaperone (hence the title) the fateful summer Brooks spends in New York City and is discovered. After I reoriented myself I was quite happy reading about small-town and (at least initially) slightly small-minded Cora Carlisle. As remarkable as Brooks may be, it was more interesting reading about Cora's transformation, and really, she could never have done it without Louise.
On the surface Cora Carlisle has a life that most women would be envious of. Circa 1922 anyway. An attentive and thoughtful husband who has a successful law practice, a fine home and two grown sons ready to begin college. As the story opens she's collecting books for charity, and caught in a rainstorm with a friend they sit in her motorcar waiting out the downpour. Their conversation lights on several topics. The local Ku Klux Klan, neighbors that did or didn't donate books and the fact that Myra Brooks happened to be looking for a local woman to act as chaperone to her daughter Louise that summer in New York.
Considering the period and the place (Wichita, Kansas), I was surprised when Cora not only mentions to her husband Alan that she is determined to travel to New York with Louise, but that he so meekly allows her to do so. When Cora meets with Myra to discuss the details she's a little shocked by the way the Brooks's household is run. It's not the tidiest, and certainly not the quietest. What mother allows her teenage daughter to travel to such a big city with a stranger, and doesn't set all else aside to go herself? As likable as Cora is, and she is very likable--more so as the story unfolds, she is properly straight-laced and perhaps just a little bit uptight. You can see it in her eyes and hear it in her thoughts just how judgemental Cora can be of her neighbors. She may be one of Wichita's first women drivers, but she would never conceive of leaving off her corset or having a little tipple with Prohibition raging.
Several things quickly become apparent. Cora has an agenda of her own in New York, and her marriage is not as picture perfect as it appears. When she was only a child Cora was abandoned by her birth mother and ended up in an orphanage. Despite hopes and promises that the children's parents would return for them, Cora finds herself on a train headed west when she is only a child. Her earliest memories are of a dark haired woman speaking another language holding her, and she fears that leaving the orphanage will mean she'll never be returned to her family.
For Cora New York is as much about trying to track down her birth mother as being a good example to the wayward Louise Brooks who proves to be quite a handful for Cora. Louise is a modern young woman with few inhibitions, and Cora is overly concerned with 'what people will think' of Louise's behavior and how to maintain her good reputation. She thinks she's simply trying to save Louise's virtue and good name, but in the end it's Cora who learns a few lessons in what propriety means and what's really important in relationships.
I thought that Cora's ultimate flowering would consist of simply throwing off her corset, but it extended far beyond allowing herself to move and breathe naturally. Moriarty uses Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence as a rod by which Cora measures her own life and the dissatisfaction that fills it. Cora thinks she's going to act as a mentor to Louise, but it's really Louise who helps open her eyes to happiness, which comes in a most unconventional form. If I had one quibble reading The Chaperone it was the sheer ambition with which Moriarty approached the telling of Cora's life, which I realize might sound a little odd. Only the last third of the book felt a little like it was tacked on to an otherwise (up until then) satisfying story. I can understand why Moriarty wanted to tell Cora's whole story, however, so it's really a minor quibble of an otherwise very well executed and engaging story. I'll be looking forward to Moriarty's next novel.