The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

29th May 2012

*This book was sent to me by the publisher Riverhead Books (Penguin) for a TLC Book Tour in exchange for an honest review.

It’s the roaring 20s, and amid the controversy of speakeasies, flapper skirts, rising hemlines, and short hairstyles are two women stuck in Wichita, Kansas, each aching for change in different ways. Louise Brooks is 15, intelligent, cynical, and a fantastic dancer ready to start her career by attending the Denishawn School of Dancing, where Martha Graham also originated. Cora Carlisle, on the other hand, is 36, lonely, and curious about her roots. Left in a Home for Friendless Girls in New York at age 3, Cora was later sent out on a train with other girls to be adopted – some as members of the family and others as indentured servants. Though Cora was lucky and loved by the Kaufmann family, she wants to revisit the orphanage to find out anything she can about the mother who left her there.

Offering herself as chaperone to Louise for a month in the summer seems simple enough, but Louise is determined to make it as difficult as possible. She mocks Cora’s lifestyle and beliefs, her strict societal code, the corset she wears faithfully. Cora believes the girl needs a mother, one who will care for her and guide her as Louise’s own mother does not, but slowly she comes to see Louise as wise beyond her years, causing Cora to question her beliefs and open herself up to the possibility of change.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty is both a coming-of-age story and a coming-into-her-own story, and the novel has so much heart. Though Louise is the obvious protagonist, she is not who Moriarty focuses the story on. Instead, she tells the story of Cora. Cora, who loves her adoptive family but experiences grief at a young age. Cora, who loves her husband but has no intimacy with him. Cora, whose children are going to college, leaving her alone in the house and lonely.

Cora is a product of her generation. She supports Prohibition and is appalled at the changing trends of the 20s. Choosing to leave her husband for a month to chaperone Louise in New York is a monumental decision, and one that, if her husband didn’t have a secret that could destroy him, she may not have been allowed to make. And Louise doesn’t make it easy; she’s condescending and rude to Cora, holding Cora up as the worst of society. But Cora does the same to Louise, even though she sees moments where Louise is kind, but slowly she realizes the ludicrousness of some of the social mores of her times and begins to change, living a lifestyle Louise would probably approve, and as she notes beautifully about her changing perspective, “She was grateful life could be long.”

That summer is just one part of the book, but its effects follow Cora back to Kansas, and though the latter half of this book witnesses the changes wrought in Cora, at times it felt like a recitation of Cora’s philanthropic goals. However, this isn’t an action novel. It’s intended to be an examination of a life, of Cora as wholly new woman, a woman changed who appreciates her husband Alan in new ways, who is on the board of a home for unwed mothers, and who is unafraid to live a life she loves, even if it is in secret.

As Cora says near the end of the novel:

She was every Cora she’d ever been: Cora X, Cora Kaufmann, Cora Carlisle. She was an orphan on a roof, a lucky girl on a train, a dearly loved daughter by chance. She was a blushing bride of seventeen, a sad and stoic wife, a loving mother, an embittered chaperone, and a daughter pushed away. She was a lover and a lewd cohabitator … a champion of the fallen, and a late-in-coming fighter for reason over fear….she knew who she was.

The Chaperone is a novel of identity and its fluidity, but it’s also a novel of decency and basic human understanding whose power is in highlighting the beauty of something as simple as acceptance and love.

Preorder The Chaperone (out June 5, 2012) by Laura Moriarty from Indiebound or for your Nook.

Check out other reviews at the TLC website.

  • heidenkind

    I have this book to read, too! I knew as soon as Louis Brooks was mentioned I had to read it; 1920s NYC is such an irresistible setting. Glad to hear you liked it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • That was fast! I just posted this. Yes, though it doesn’t focus on Brooks, I think you’ll still enjoy it immensely. Such an interesting look at women in this time period.

  • This book sounds like it has everything I like! I need to add this to my summer reading list.

    • It’s perfect for summer reading! (Though of course, my guidelines for summer reading are not set in stone.) I hope you enjoy it if you pick it up!

  • agignac

    I have a copy of this and I’ve been intrigued by it, because I really like Louise Brooks, but I think this is the first time I’ve realized the book isn’t about her. Is she not even in it for part of the time? What’s the point of putting her on the cover then? Just for sales? Well, I’ll keep that in mind as I start to read…

    • I think the point is that Cora is so influenced by Louise, even though there is a substantial age difference. Everything that happens could arguably go back to Louise and the changes she inspires in Cora. So no, she’s not in it for the whole thing, but I think there’s enough there that you would still really enjoy it.

  • Abookishaffair

    This sounds really good!

    • It was! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Jenna

    This book sounds like a beautiful character study. I’ve been fascinated by books set in the ’20s and ’30s lately so I’m adding this one too my list! There’s something so intriguing about a simple world on the brink modernization.

    • That’s a great way to describe it, Jenna. I, too, am fascinated by the time period, and I love the controversy you see play out, particularly with women. Hope you enjoy it!

  • I am even more desperately excited to read this one! I do love fictionalized biographies (or biographical fictions, whatever) but I even more appreciate the look at ordinary women during extraordinary eras. The past-meets-the-future-ish-ness of the plot has me literally drooling. So.excited!

    • Yes, I foresee you really, really loving this book, Audra. I know we both specifically love strong female characters, and Cora and her inner strength and realization that she doesn’t think the way she’s always thought was so touching. Can’t wait to see what you think.

  • You had me at “It’s the Roaring 20’s. . . ”

    • Duh. ๐Ÿ™‚ I know, though. I love a good story set during this time period. Stay tuned. Later this week, I’m going to de-glitz the Gatsby film trailer. Talk about roaring 20s…

  • Love that time period… I read another book by this author and I didn’t care for it, so I’ve been waiting to read more reviews of this one before I take the plunge.

    • I hadn’t read anything by her before, but I would urge you to pick this one up. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it’s one that will stay with me for quite some time.

  • Pingback: Laura Moriarty, author of The Chaperone, on tour May 2012 | TLC Book Tours()

  • “decency and basic human understanding” are both things too often lacking in this world. I’m excited to read this book myself! Thanks for being on the tour.

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