The Chaperone

Laura Moriarty

Penguin Books (2012)

$26.95

The Chaperone, written by Laura Moriarty, is billed by many sources as one of this summer’s “must-reads”. This title was high on my reading list, so when it was featured as a Kindle Daily Deal at a fraction of the price of a hardback, I snatched it up and downloaded it immediately.

Setting off on an adventure of a lifetime, Cora Carlisle agrees to chaperone teenager Louise Brooks on a six week visit to New York City, where Louise intends to study dance with the famed Denishawn Dance Company. Thirty-six-year-old Cora is a well-regarded woman in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. She is married, the mother of twin boys bound for college in the fall.

Louise Brooks is fifteen, beautiful, arrogant and sexually precocious, and is anxious to leave the cultural confines of the Midwest. Louise sees no need for a chaperone, and defies convention from the moment she and Cora step foot in the Wichita train station. Her seductive nature and actions become even more pronounced as the women travel further east.

Cora has her own secrets and motives for visiting New York in the summer of 1922, known only to her husband. She explores both the vibrant city and her past – hidden from the conservative citizens of Kansas – while Louise practices with the dance company. But while Cora tries to keep Louise’s wild and artistic personality in check fearing that the young girl might sully her reputation, Cora’s eyes are opened to new possibilities for leading a more liberating life when she returns home.

After training for several weeks, Louise earns a spot in the Denishawn Dance Company before eventually heading to Hollywood. There she becomes a film star known for her beauty, her modern bobbed hair and her sex appeal.

Although it is Louise who moves on to great fame as a screen actress, it is Cora’s life that the reader explores in greater depth. Firm beliefs about hemlines, hairstyles, birth control (believe it or not, a well-known household disinfectant advertised itself as a prophylactic in the twenties), and racism are all tested while in NYC. Before returning to the Midwest, Cora makes a life-changing decision. She alters her outlook on the myriad of cultural possibilities taking place in American society. Louise is a flash-in-the-pan success in the film industry, while Cora seizes new opportunities. A respected woman in Wichita, Cora works to influence her community to embrace the progressive transformations emerging in more metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles.

Laura Moriarty has meticulously researched the material used in her novel The Chaperone. A bibliography illustrates how the author incorporates the tiniest of details into the fictional life of Cora, while staying true to the story of real-life film actress Louise Brooks. But rather than create a biography of Louise and her crash and burn career, Professor Moriarty shows how an average woman in the guise of Cora Carlisle – a mere chaperone – can change her life and that of others by an experience which exposes her to a life she might have never known as a privileged homemaker in America’s breadbasket.

An interesting look at the changes in society during the 20th century (particularly those concerning women), The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty has earned four eyes from thebooklookery. The bohemian life led by Louise seems more believable than the duplicitous life that Cora creates after her visit to the Big Apple, however; the overview of women’s history during the 20th century is excellent.

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