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.
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