The Chaperone

A Book Review by Laurie Fundukian

chap book

Laura Moriarty, who teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas, has written three other novels, but The Chaperone garnered the most critical and fan attention. It was published in 2012 and became a best-seller, but it wasn’t on my radar until my book club selected it this summer. Better late than never! The Chaperone follows the trend of books such as The Paris Wife, Loving Frank, and Z, which give a fictionalized narrative about real people (Hemingway’s first wife, Frank Lloyd-Wright’s mistress, and Zelda Fitzgerald, respectively). The Chaperone looks at the real-life characters of Louise Brooks, who was a silent film star in the 20s, and Cora Carlisle, and focuses mostly on Cora (a “matron” at age 36!), who has the privilege of accompanying Louise to New York City the summer Louise is 15 and has been accepted into a prestigious modern dance program.

Louise and Cora leave Wichita, Kansas in the summer of 1922. Louise’s mother has no patience or real love for her daughter, but thinks that Louise’s success will reflect well on her. Cora, a proper lady and mother of two college-aged boys who are away for the summer, tries to be a moral buffer and leader to the petulant and striking Louise, but there are things we don’t yet know about these women: Louise is not an innocent, and in fact had a horrible childhood in which she grew up too soon, and Cora, in her own way, also had to grow up too soon.  This is not Cora’s first visit to NYC, though everyone but her husband thinks it is. Cora was orphaned and placed in a religious orphanage with a name that has always bothered her: The Home for Friendless Girls. At six, she was part of the phenomenon of the Orphan Trains that took children to be placed in the Midwest—some in good families and some in families who just wanted field hands. The book Orphan Train was wonderful, so the connection in this narrative was striking yet familiar. Cora has been a good wife and mother (she married at 17 and has endured a marriage of convenience due to her husband’s preferences), but she is now determined to have something of her own, which includes knowing more about her history, so she jumps at the chance to chaperone Louise. Readers will root for Cora, and eventually for the spoiled Louise, but Cora is the center of the novel. She is a woman who is on the brink of change, though she still wears tight corsets (which Louise makes fun of) that hurt her skin, and she still cares about a woman’s reputation. Louise is having none of it. The women (well, woman and girl) have their tumult, but there is a bond there that is fascinating and not easy. They may both learn from one another, but they never express any love or admiration in the moment. Cora is influenced by Louise’s carefree way of approaching life with a fever Cora has never allowed herself, and, in a plot twist that is quite a departure from her regular life, she ends up a changed woman who finds herself that summer. Louise, depending on how you look at it, remains lost, but ever beautiful and sparkling.

Most of the book takes place during that fateful summer, but Moriarty gives the reader closure toward the end with a synopsis of the years that follow: Louise’s career, Cora’s changed life after 1922, the World War II years and her sons’ involvement, an orphan Cora raises (but I won’t give away how that comes to be except to say that Cora’s husband can’t deny her this wish), and one last physical visit between Cora and Louise when Louise is back in Wichita after her film career is over. But that isn’t their last connection. Cora discovers at the end that Louise has penned a memoir that is deep, well-written, and well-received, so when most (perhaps even Cora) have written Louise off as fluff, the book gets the last word. Lulu in Hollywood is the real memoir Louise Brooks wrote, and I guess I need put it on the reading list. Reading is about making connections, and this book does that with these real women, so the natural progression would be to read about Louise. For now, enjoy this book, which is about Cora’s soul.