Archive for the ‘Laura Moriarty’ Category

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty ~ 2012. This edition: Riverhead Books, 2012. First edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-59448-701-9. 367 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10. You know, the only real surprise I found here was how mild it was. I’d expected something a bit more graphic, from all the hype. The several key sex scenes are safely veiled in allusion. A decently well-written addition to the “women’s fiction” shelf, which, if it feels like damning with faint praise, is how I’m feeling about this one right now.

*****

The Chaperone was all over the bestseller lists earlier this year, but seems to have faded quickly as readers seeking the latest literary thrill gobbled it up, found nothing worth spending much time digesting, and inexorably moved on. To continue with the food analogy, I was going to compare this one to a box of chocolates, or a big slice of layer cake,  but mulling it over just a mite more, I’ve settled on watermelon for my comparison. Sweet and refreshing and welcome while it’s being consumed, but once it’s down to the rind you realize it doesn’t really count as food. And there are always those slightly bothersome seeds…

I quite liked this book – I really did  – but the whole time I was reading I had that “you are being educated” feeling which is dreadfully difficult for the writer of historical fiction to completely avoid. Right from the very first scene, where our protagonist Cora Carlisle appears engaged in one of her civic-improvement projects – this particular one is collecting children’s book donations for the local library – the scene is being set up all around her, figurative stage hands pointing at clues and the authorial chorus monologuing away so we don’t miss a thing.

Here I was going to write out my own version of the plot outline, but, really, life’s too short. From the Goodreads page:

The Chaperone is a captivating novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 and the summer that would change them both.

Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will transform their lives forever.

For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.

Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s,’30s, and beyond—from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers,  and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women—Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them.

The Chaperone is crammed with a whole bunch of social issues, with our heroine Cora firmly on the side of right, of course, at least after her consciousness-raising is completed. Racial prejudice and segregation, women’s rights – namely access to contraceptives and care for unwed mothers, with a bit of figurative bra-burning (in this case corset dropping), Prohibition and the repeal of liquor laws,  and eventually gay rights are all featured.

This is an ambitiously crowded book, with the author attempting to cover the entire term of a woman’s life in 357 pages. The few weeks of summer with Louise in New York gets the most screen time, with flashbacks to childhood nicely detailed here and there. The rest of the story is painted with a very broad brush; we are told simply what happens and what Cora thinks of it all, but from an omnipotent distance.

A little way into the book I started thinking, “Hey, this reminds me extremely strongly of another author”, and eventually I had the “aha!” moment. This is a novel very much resembling one of Bess Streeter Aldrich‘s. The same short but detailed periods of a protagonist’s life, with stretches of “then this or that happened and she/he was really sad/happy/confused/vindicated/pick some emotion”, plus very obvious inclusions of historical snippets clumsily inserted to show the bigger picture. Sometimes the characters seem like paper cutouts stuck on a schoolroom timeline.

Possibly the Kansas setting of much of The Chaperone had something to do with it; Aldrich was also a writer devoted to the midwestern states and the decent farmers and gossipy small town denizens thereof. Despite the New York interludes and the growth of Wichita from sleepy town to bustling city in the course of Cora’s life, The Chaperone is at heart just another small town story.

The Louise Brooks connection serves merely as a skeletal framework to build Cora’s story onto; it actually works fairly well, and I must say it left me with a strong desire to learn more about the real life Louise, to see if she was indeed the self-centered egoist she appears to be here. Brook’s own collection of biographical essays, Lulu in Hollywood, is now on my list of things to read next, as is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (a re-reading, in that case); it is the book which Cora struggles with and is rather offended by throughout her New York summer.

This is not a great review – my thoughts are everywhere – I apologize. It’s been a busy week, with many things going on, and though I’ve stolen some time for reading my writing sessions have been fragmented and often interrupted.

I generally enjoyed The Chaperone and had no trouble keeping my mind engaged; its numerous flaws were slightly annoying but forgivable. Cora Carlisle has some unlikely adventures, and I can’t quite bring myself to completely believe in the complete success of her two lives – the public and the very private – especially as she has to keep a number of other people convinced to play along. I kept expecting her to get busted; she never was. And that’s my biggest spoiler.

Chick lit, but of a superior type. If you liked Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, this one should suit you just fine. Birds of a feather.

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