Book Review: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
Long before tragic starlets became ubiquitous figures in American pop culture, there was Louise Brooks. Those who were alive when the world was still in black and white regard her as one of the most captivating leading ladies of silent film. Younger generations, meanwhile, unknowingly worship her many cultural vestiges, such as the bobbed haircut. Brooks’s sudden rise to fame was just as quickly plagued by rumors of alcoholism and scandalous affairs. She was at once an inspirational story and a cautionary tale for progressive women of her time, which of course makes her a fascinating subject for a work of historical fiction.
However in Laura Moriarty’s latest novel, The Chaperone, now out in paperback, the story revolves around the woman who escorted the would-be icon on her first and decisive excursion to New York City. Like the ambitious fifteen-year-old Louise that Moriarty brings to life, Cora Carlisle hails from Wichita, Kansas. At thirty-six, Cora has remained loyal to her husband and raised her twin boys into fine gentlemen. Come hell or high water, she adheres to all notions of propriety expected of a good Christian woman.
Louise, on the other hand, dares to defy convention with her modern style and brash demeanor. Dubbed the best dancer in their dusty little town, she dreams of one day making it big in New York. Her parents allow her to attend the Denishawn School of Dancing for the summer, so long as they find a reputable chaperone to go with her. When Cora hears of this, she feels this intense urge, the nature of which becomes clear later, to venture to the big city.
Through scattered flashback chapters, we learn that Cora was an orphan taken in by the Sisters of the New York Home for Friendless Girls. She has no idea who her parents were, just a blurred image of a woman with long dark hair and a shawl. Once they have settled into the city, Cora takes Louise to dance class in the morning and spends the rest of the day pursuing faint trails to her past.
Some of the best scenes in the novel are those in which Cora and Louise face off in generational squabbles. Cora drifts off on the train ride to New York and later finds Louise in the food car, dining with considerably older men. Cora drags Louise back to their seats and scolds her for having a total lack of regard for her reputation. “Men don’t want candy that’s been unwrapped. Maybe for a lark, but not when it comes to marriage,” Cora says bluntly. Thus begins a love-hate relationship between the two women who, throughout their stay in the city, argue about everything from corsets to contraception. The chronic rows between Cora and Louise reflect the fierce struggle between conservative Victorian ideals and modern realism that characterized the Roaring Twenties.
Moriarty convincingly places us in that time period through vivid sensory descriptions. Walking down a New York street, Cora smells fresh baked bread, cat urine, melting cheese, laundry soap, and roasting meat. The book is also rich in true-to-life historical details. The girls attend a performance of “Shuffle Along,” an off-Broadway musical which unbeknownst to Cora is one of the first major productions put together by an entirely African-American cast and crew. She scans the mixed race audience and genuinely wonders if they had walked into a protest of sorts.
However, Moriarty sometimes includes too much history that it feels like she’s trying to checking things off a list of historical markers. In the opening scene, Cora talks to a friend about suffrage meetings, increasingly hiked up hemlines, and the growing membership of the Klan in Wichita, all of which we get through summarizing dialogue. And then there are moments where Moriarty relies heavily on the history to convey the emotion. Using Cora’s corset as a metaphor for her lack of freedom is not only obvious, it’s overdone.
In general, the novel suffers from an awkward narrative structure. The various plot elements are too compartmentalized and can at times feel disjointed. For one, the flashbacks take up whole chapters, taking us away from the present action for too long. Though we understand the implications of past events as we come to know the woman that Cora has become, the lingering bitterness and fears of abandonment or alienation from those moments are not integrated enough in her present interactions with Louise.
Moriarty wanted to show us how life changed for Cora her summer with Louise in the final third segment of the book, which could have worked better as an epilogue. Not only was the girls’ time in Jazz Age New York cut short, Moriarty then tries to tack on other historical events like the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the onset of World War II… We rush through these moments, along with several births and deaths, but we never stop long enough to bother caring. A flash forward to a single defining moment in Cora’s future and a brief reunion with Louise would have sufficed for an ending.
Despite the messy structure and awkward pacing, The Chaperone is worth reading because of the narrative strength of each of its parts. With the Roaring Twenties as her primary backdrop, Moriarty tells the compelling story of a woman with a broken past and a contrived present, forced by a rebellious teenager to reconsider her attitudes regarding the future. Moriarty also touches upon issues like feminism, race, immigration, morality, and sexuality that all still exist today, however different their guise may be.
By showing us how Louise Brooks changed the way Cora sees the world (it was in the end Louise that chaperoned Cora), Moriarty illustrates that although the youth tend to be grandiose, impulsive, and at times, self-destructive, they have this jaded awareness of what is wrong about society and strong sense of how we can be better as people. “The young can exasperate, of course, and frighten and condescend, and insult, and cut you with their still unrounded edges. But they can also drag you, as you protest and scold and try to pull away, right up to the window of the future, and even push you through.”
Moriarty will read from The Chaperone at the Ivy Bookshop Friday, June 21 at 7 P.M.