Lauria Moriarty’s The Chaperone has gotten great reviews this summer, so I thought I would give it a try. When the book opens in 1922, a fifteen-year old Louise Brooks, who would later become a very famous movie star, has been accepted into a dance program in New York City. She lives in Wichita, and her mother agrees to let her go to New York if she is accompanied by a chaperone. That chaperone is Cora Carlisle, a thirty-six year-old married Wichita woman who has her own reasons for wanting to spend a summer in New York. The two couldn’t be more different – Louise is irreverent and disdainful of social conventions, and Cora is very traditional, adhering strictly to the rules of decorum and decency.
What I loved about The Chaperone is that it took so many unexpected turns that I could never predict how it would end. Cora turns out to be a complicated woman, while Louise has her own secrets. The summer the two women spend in New York is a pivotal one for each of them; it springboards Louise into fame and success, and it allows Cora to unleash her own passions and figure out who she really is. The summer’s end happens three-quarters of the way through The Chaperone; the rest of the book follows Cora’s life back in Wichita (with Louise making appearances here and there as well). The book then speeds through the rest of Cora’s life, but its pacing didn’t bother me.
Like so many others, I loved this story. I loved seeing Cora’s transformation, which in many ways mirrored the transformations of American society during the same time period, notably in women’s rights, sexuality, and reproductive freedom. I liked seeing the true Cora come alive from within the confines of her corsets. I didn’t find Louise as compelling, which is ironic because she is of course based on a real person (and a person who left behind a lot of source material). I also liked the themes of motherhood and identity, which pervade the whole book in some form or another.
The Chaperone was a very satisfying read. The accolades it has received this summer are well-deserved. This is the second book I’ve read by Laura Moriarty – the first was While I’m Falling, which I reviewed here. They are SUCH different books, in tone, in setting, in mood. It’s hard to believe they were written by the same person. I preferred The Chaperone – a much more memorable and compelling book, in my opinion.
I mostly listened to The Chaperone on audio. It is narrated by Elizabeth McGovern, who alternates between a faux British accent for the narration and a Midwestern twangy accent for Cora and a listless tone for Louise. I didn’t love the audio, mostly because of the jarring transitions between voices. Cora especially seemed even more timid and conventional in audio than she came across in writing. I preferred the print to the audio.
Thank you to Riverhead Books for the print and Penguin for the audio review copies.