“Chaperone” is a good word, isn’t it? Conjures up a completely different world from ours, back when the appearance of sexual propriety was important. It seems both quaint and safe. I’ll admit that I was expecting madcap Prohibition escapades and maybe some characters dancing the Charleston from Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, but that was a misjudgment. It’s true that this novel is about a woman who serves as Louise Brooks’ chaperone on a trip to New York City in 1922, and that most of the action takes place in New York during that time frame. But maybe it’s better thought of as a belated-coming-of-age novel, and an exploration of different kinds of love.
Let’s get Louise out of the way first. Moriarty’s portrait of the film star is completely believable and compelling: Louise is focused, driven, impossible. Cora Carlisle is accompanying her to New York to study dance with Ruth St. Denis, and Louise makes the most of that opportunity, despite also creating a certain amount of havoc. It’s Brooks on the handsome cover of the book and Brooks who serves as a foil to Cora over the arc of the book.
But Cora Carlisle is the heart of the novel. She’s first presented to us as a prosperous Wichita housewife with two college-age sons and a handsome lawyer husband. It seems surprising that she would volunteer to escort the surly Brooks on this visit to New York, especially since Louise, at fifteen, is already more than a handful. While they’re still on the train, Cora begins to grasp that safeguarding Louise’s innocence is going to be a thankless task, but she’s too naive to grasp the truth: that Louise hasn’t been an innocent for years.
Gradually we learn that Cora’s own life and marriage aren’t as predictable as they had seemed at first. She has her own reasons for traveling to New York, and some of her Midwestern complacency gets rubbed off along the way. What makes her an especially appealing character is her sensitivity and self-awareness; she’s quick to catch and reconsider her own narrow-mindedness. But her defining characteristic is generosity, and we see that quality again and again in the course of the book. Moriarty makes an interesting structural choice in The Chaperone, continuing the story once Cora returns to Wichita. She speeds up the pace and moves into a more episodic form of story-telling that remains just as compelling as the slower, more detailed earlier portion. The events of her New York trip, and their impact on her, continue to blossom. (I’m trying not to give too much away, but if you want more plot details, see this NYTimes review.) I began reading The Chaperone with some skepticism and reserve, but finished it with affection for the characters and admiration for Moriarty.