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Review: The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty
Riverhead, 2012. 371 pp. $27

The summer of 1922, fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks can’t wait to leave Wichita, Kansas, for a month-long New York tryout with an avant-garde dance company. Given the political and social tenor of Wichita, Louise’s parents seem unusually liberal and open-minded, but, to their daughter’s disgust, they give out that they’re looking for a respectable woman to chaperone her. Cora Carlisle, mother of two sons about to enter college, volunteers for the job, and the Brookses accept, while making it seem as if they’re doing her a favor. As for Louise, she promises to be absolutely horrible:

But there was no mistaking the contempt in the girl’s eyes. It was the way a child looked at the broccoli that must be eaten before dessert, the room that must be cleaned before playtime. It was a gaze of dread, made all the more punishing by the girl’s youth and beauty, her pale skin and pouting lips. Cora felt herself blushing. She had not been the subject of this sort of condescension in years.

However, that’s not half of it. No sooner have the two travelers boarded their train than Cora begins to sense what she’s up against. Louise has read all the books Cora has, and then some. She’s even brought Schopenhauer along, which would seem pure affectation, except that she’s marked passages where the philosopher’s observations move her. Unlike Cora, Louise disdains Prohibition, wears no corset (but plenty of makeup), and sees nothing wrong with letting men flirt with her, some of whom are old enough to be her father. Cora assumes that naive, inexperienced Louise is merely acting out, an adolescent unaware of consequences, and that her parents have been negligent in raising her. That they have, but she’s no innocent, nor do appearances fool her, as when she wonders how someone as dull and restrained as Cora could have attracted a man as handsome and successful as her husband. Naturally, the remark cuts the older woman to the quick, especially because, as the reader soon learns, Cora’s marriage isn’t what it seems.

Louise Brooks, circa 1929 (Courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Louise Brooks, circa 1929 (Courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Cinemaphiles may recognize Louise Brooks as a star of the silent screen; her bobbed hair helped make that style a symbol of the 1920s, and she was the film incarnation of the flapper. So in casting her opposite Cora, Moriarty has drawn the battle lines, for Cora is a fictional representation of a Midwestern Progressive who fought for woman suffrage but has the social and sexual prejudices common to her time and class. At first, therefore, The Chaperone promises to be a funny, sharply observed clash of outlook, to which the splendid sequences in New York, full of feeling and atmosphere, lend zest. Then, to Moriarty’s further credit, the narrative takes off to a higher level altogether.

Cora, it turns out, was an orphan, raised by a Catholic home for abandoned girls, and shipped by train westward, traveling station to station until someone liked the look of her and took her in. Several novelists have written about these trains, and no wonder (see, for example, My Notorious Life); what a heart-breaking story, and Cora’s had me cringing in pain. But the surprise of The Chaperone is that it’s not just Louise who’s looking forward to a taste of freedom in New York. Cora, who has been dutiful all her life, has undertaken to search for her birth mother, and though many obstacles get in her way, she won’t take no for an answer. She could never explain this to Louise, but of the two of them, she winds up having the more satisfying, successful trip.

The Chaperone is a wonderful book, beautifully written, the characters well drawn, even the minor ones. Moriarty thrusts them boldly into situations from which they don’t always emerge proud of themselves, and I like that–except when her earnestness gets the better of her. For instance, when Cora’s horrified to attend a theatrical performance where black and white sit together and the performers are African-American, the author immediately drops in a scene in which a more tolerant Cora talks to black activists in the 1970s. It’s as if Moriarty fears that we won’t like her heroine anymore and has to rescue her.

If there’s one problem with The Chaperone, it’s that discursiveness, the desire to tell all of Cora’s life. I don’t think Moriarty needs to, and the book runs at least fifty pages too long. They’re not bad pages, but they lack the substance of the rest, and the narrative has the feel of looking in vain for a strong ending. I think the story could have stopped years earlier, letting the reader imagine the rest. But still, it’s a terrific book.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.