I’m a sucker for novels about old movies, movie stars, and life in America in the early part of the 20th Century, which made me especially susceptible to the charms of Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone. However, I think the novel’s prose, brisk pace, and broad scope will appeal to those without my particular interests just as much.
Cora Carlisle is a married housewife who has overcome a troubled youth to achieve a life of middle-class respectability. She’s the very picture of moral uprightness and social nicety. If she ever thought about it, she might realize how unhappy she is. Cora surprises her husband, and herself really, by answering an ad from a fellow Wichita family seeking someone to chaperone their talented daughter for summer in New York while she takes dance lessons with a prestigious academy.
That talented daughter, who turns out to be quite the handful with her unconventional manners and scandalous attire, is Louise Brooks at 15. For those who don’t know, Brooks was a famous silent-film star famous for her beauty. In Moriarty’s telling she is a conceited, snobby child with ideas that shock her stuffy old chaperone.
Though Brooks is the real-life star, Moriarty focuses much more on Cora, and the novel follows her far beyond that one summer when she was brushed with fame on the rise. Cora’s life story is a handy stand-in for Moriarty to explore the lives of women of the time period, with the myriad challenges and prejudices that they face. That she manages to do so without ever seeming preachy or taking away from her narrative is a minor miracle.