- Hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (June 5, 2012)
- ISBN-10: 1594487014
- Source: Publisher
Cora Carlisle lives in Wichita with her husband and twin sons. On the surface, she leads a fairly traditional life as a homemaker, volunteering her time with local civic groups. She wears a corset and the traditional high lace collars of the time. Deep down, though, her life is more than traditional. Her marriage, while a loving one, is far from traditional, she had her husband have long since ceased marital relations, not necessarily by choice. Her boys are off to college in the fall and Cora is seeking something to fill that void in her life.
When she learns that the daughter of one of her acquaintances is heading to New York to attend a dance school, Cora surprises herself when she volunteers to offer to chaperone the young girl. Louise Brooks is fifteen, far too young to make this trip without an adult at her side. It’s the early 1920s and young Louise’s virtue must be kept in check in order to secure a marriage to a nice young man.
Cora has her own motivations for going; as a young child she was left at an children’s home in New York. Like many children like her, she was put on an orphan train that made its way around the country. Cora was finally taken in by a married couple who loved her and treated her as their own. That doesn’t stop Cora from wanting to know more about her birth mother.
The two journey to New York together. It’s not long before Cora realizes how “independent” Louise is, losing her several time within hours of their departure. Upon arrival, once Louise is settled in her dance classes, Louise is given the freedom to roam New York on her own. She quickly tracks down the children’s home where she lived as a child, befriending a German immigrant handyman who aids in her search for the truth about her birth mother.
While what she uncovers isn’t what she expected, this truth provides Cora with a newly-gained sense of self-identity and respect. While she attempts to reign in Louise’s wild behavior, she in turn starts to loosen up quite a bit. The corset she wears quickly becomes a symbol for all that she’s been forced to hold in, all the restrictions she, and society, have imposed upon her.
Eventually the two women return to Wichita, both completely different women than they were when they started out on their journey. While Cora has found her true self and embraces her identity, finally doing what she wants for a change, Louise still struggles to find herself.
Fast forward several years, and the unlikely duo are reunited. Louise has reached a low point in her life, while at one time she was a successful actress, she’s now penniless. Despite the faults and difficulties in their relationship in the past, Cora is able to provide Louise the urging and guidance she needs to, like Cora did years ago, find her true identity.
Moriarty uses factual details about Louise Brooks, a well-known queen of the silent movie, to create an incredibly well written fictional account of her relationship with her chaperone. In her research, she learned about this chaperone, left unnamed. She skillfully weaves a story around this character, creating a novel destined for greatness.
The Chaperone is a novel so rich in historical detail that the reader will instantly be swept back in time to the roaring 20s. As we follow the lives of Cora and Louise, we’re also given a commentary on the social norms of the age, including Prohibition, birth control, race relations, homosexuality and more. The remarkable thing is the depth of the growth of each of the characters. Starting out. Cora represented the old, with her corsets and high-laced collars and long skirts. Louise represented the new, with short bobbed hair, shorter skirts, revealing necklines. In time, however, Cora evolves, slowly shedding the society norms as she sheds the corset that kept her bound all these years. Moriarty uses her to represent the shift in societal beliefs, a traditional woman in all sense of the word who slowly evolves into a sexual, free woman.
I didn’t intend to read this book in one sitting. At just short of 400 pages, I planned to pace out my reading. That didn’t happen, for I was instantly taken in by the lives of Cora and Louise. This is a novel I will be shouting about from the rooftops! While Moriarty has written several other excellent books, this is the book she will be known for, a book that will be discussed in book clubs around the country. Highly recommended.