First of all, to the critics who complained that this book did not prominently feature Louise Brooks, let me remind you that Laura Moriarty chose to write a NOVEL called The Chaperone (not one entitled Louise Brooks and That Time She Needed a Chaperone). This means the book includes: 1) the childhood events which motivated Cora to become Louise’s “chaperone” leading to 2) the actions that occurred when Cora was “the chaperone” which resulted in 3) a major change in Cora’s life due to her experiences while being “the chaperone”.
Ultimately, The Chaperone is a book of secrets. At the beginning, Cora Carlisle seems to have the perfect life with her soon-to-be college freshmen twin sons and a handsome, successful lawyer husband who dotes on her. Despite the fact she was socially active in the upper echelon of Wichita, Kansas, when Cora discovers that a neighborhood girl, Louise, needed a married woman to chaperone her on a trip to NYC for an internship with Ruth St Denis, she calmly agrees to be that escort. She knows her husband cannot refuse her request and off she goes. Via flashbacks, we discover that Cora has an unknown parentage and spent time at the Home For Friendless Girls prior to being selected to ride the Orphan Train where she was “adopted” by a loving couple in Kansas. This journey to New York City is an opportunity for Cora to discover the identity of her birth mother. After a month in Manhatten, Louise is accepted into the Denishawn Modern Dance Company, the only one in her class who receives that honor. Cora returns home, affected by the events which occurred on her quest, situations which were alternately successful, disappointing, and life changing.
Over time, Cora develops from a staid and straight laced patron into a more modern woman. Her conversion coincides with the openness of the roaring twenties. Eventually she sheds the confines of society, just as she removes the restrictions of her corset. With this loosening comes an independence – a freedom to become her own person and take on a leadership role in the community. Issues such as prohibition, adoption, gay rights, reproductive rights, and suffrage are explored. This book has a lot of substance to it, reflecting the “good old days” up until the 1980’s with numerous historical tidbits thrown in so the reader gets a good feel for life in the Midwest in the 20th century.
May I point out that even if the events of this book seem unrealistic, as far as the details about Louise Brooks is concerned, this is a matter of truth being stranger than fiction. The fact that the actresses’ “package” was opened at an early age might have contributed to her sexual openness as a teen and her difficulty forming relationships as an adult. All her biographical information is documented in Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks as well as in other tomes exploring the life of this iconic, albeit tragic, film star. The other incredulous fictional occurrences can also be explained. The Orphan Train was a true phenomena which has gotten some attention through recent literature. Beyond that, every family has their closeted skeletons – from adopted children, to unknown spouses, to unidentified parentages, to sexual or abusive relationships – all secrets which are often kept from children and family members. So is it that hard to believe that Cora and Alan were able to maintain the image of a perfect family while behind closed doors they had an unusual arrangement? (One which they could not share with the outside world, not even their own children.)
While I thoroughly enjoyed The Chaperone, I wish Moriarty would have edited the lengthy second half of the book. There were some scenes which could easily have been eliminated, tightening up the plot without losing the essence of the novel. Yet, this book had a lot to say, forcing us to examine our own past and wonder what hidden secrets remain unknown from our ancestry. Four stars.