The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

16043753Fiction – print. Riverhead Books, 2013. Originally published 2012. 402 pgs. Purchased. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, Louise Brooks became a famous silent film actress and dancer and was noted for her bob hairstyle, a unique take on the poplar flapper persona of the time. In Moriarty’s fictional account, Louise is a fifteen-year-old girl leaving Kansas for the first time to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York.

Louise’s parents insist she be accompanied by a chaperone, selecting a thirty-six-year-old married woman named Cora Carlisle to travel with Louise and escort her to and from class for the next six or so weeks. As a suffragette and leading voice in Wichita for women’s rights, Cora considers herself to be a modern woman, but her definition of “modern” is challenged by Louise’s lack of respect for convention and short hemlines.

As much as Louise and Cora clash, Cora cannot bring herself to call off the trip and return Louise back to her parents in Kansa. For one, Cora believes in Louise’s talent, refusing to rob the young girl of her opportunity with Denishawn simply because her flighty mother never mothered her properly. For another, the opportunity to visit New York City offers Cora a chance to reconnect with her past. While Louise is in dance classes, Cora sets out to learn the identity of the woman in the hazy memories she holds of a time prior to the nuns placing her on the Kansas-bound orphan train.

I suggested Moriarty’s novel to one of the book clubs I’ve been trying out after seeing an announcement from PBS that the book would be adapted into a movie starring Elizabeth McGovern, who also happens to narrate the audiobook version, in the Spring of 2019. The group selected the book for our May meeting, which is why I finally read this one after letting it linger on my bookshelves for nearly four years.

Moriarty’s novel offers an entertaining romp through New York City and, in that regard, it is similar in vein to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson– an older woman’s eyes are open by the flagrant modernity of a younger woman. To quote one of my favorite literary heroines, “I [was excessively diverted” by Moriarty’s story.

Yet, the story also interweaves the occasionally bleak historical events found in novels like Christina Baker Klein’s Orphan Train and then asks the characters (and, therefore, the reader) to question why they find such events or behaviors as immoral. These moments add weight to Mortiary’s story, elevating it to a level above the categorization of an easy, breezy read.

The one quibble I have with Moriarty’s novel is the false ending at the conclusion of Part Two. At that point, Louise’s career is safely launched, and Cora has uncovered the truth about her parentage, adjusting her view of morality accordingly. And, yet, Morarity decided to include a Part Three, which rapidly covers the next sixty years of Louise and Cora’s lives.

Because I had grown to love these characters, a part of me did appreciate the opportunity to see how events worked out for the two of them. But, at the same time, the inclusion of this information felt out of scope with the rest of the novel. I would have been just as satisfied – if not more so – had Moriarty ended her novel at the conclusion of Cora and Louise’s summer together.

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