It’s the summer of 1922 in Wichita, Kansas, and thirty-six year old Cora Carlisle is bored. Her twin sons are preparing to leave for college, and she doesn’t have anything to do with her time except various charity functions. Then she learns that her neighbor’s fifteen year old daughter has been accepted to a summer dance program in New York, and needs someone to accompany the girl as a chaperone. Cora volunteers for the job, but has motives other than just an excuse to get out of Kansas for the summer: Cora’s own history began in New York, and she goes there hoping to answer some questions about her past. In the meantime, though, she will stay busy keeping an eye on her charge: headstrong, independent, fifteen year old Louise Brooks, who is only a few years away from becoming a Hollywood superstar.
I picked this up expecting it to be a light, fun romp in the vein of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – just two ladies being modern and fun and generally having a blast in a pre-WWII setting. What I got was something…pretty different.
It feels unfair to say that the synopsis is a bait-and-switch – it’s called The Chaperone, after all, so obviously it’s going to focus more on Cora than Louise – but it’s so Cora-heavy that Louise barely functions in the story at all. Moriarty is obviously more concerned with Cora’s story than Louise’s, and this is most apparent in the structure of the book. I expected the story to cover just the period that Cora and Louise spent in New York, but instead the book spans Cora’s entire life. When she returns to Kansas from New York, what I expected to be a two-or-three page epilogue instead turns into the last 3/4 of the book, as we have to sit through all of Cora’s marital drama, a romance that I never really believed in, and a quick tour of post-Jazz Age American history, and by itself it’s interesting, but the shadow of Louise Brooks looms over the entire story, and this is to the book’s detriment. The problem is that, when given a choice between reading about a movie star in her wild teenage years and a middle-aged woman who lived a pretty unremarkable life, I’m going to choose the former every time. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to write a book about an ordinary woman living an ordinary life, but don’t trick me into reading it by luring me with the origin story of a Hollywood icon.
That’s the big problem with this book – Cora’s story can’t compete with the one we could be reading, the one about how Louise Brooks left home at fifteen and, by nineteen, had been kicked out of her prestigious dance company for wild behavior. In fact, I almost suspect that Louise Brooks was not featured in the early drafts of this book. I think this started out as the story of a woman who lived in the 1920’s and went to New York, and at the later stages an editor or someone was like, “But what if Cora knew someone who became famous later?” and Louise was introduced. If that was the case, it didn’t work – I know I said that it’s unfair to call the plot a bait-and-switch, but that’s what it felt like.
Also Laura Moriarty commits the cardinal sin of historical fiction writing: she lets the research show. Good historic fiction should be well researched, but the reader shouldn’t be able to tell – in historic fiction, if the reader can see what research went into the book, it doesn’t work.
Every five pages the characters in The Chaperone are like, “Let’s talk about how scandalously short the skirts have gotten! My, aren’t bobbed haircuts interesting? Say, did you hear about this kooky new group called the Ku Klux Klan?” etc. Worst of all, Moriarty will insert narration into the story to underline the significance of whatever historical info dump she just featured. When two characters discuss the Ku Klux Klan in their town, Moriarty suddenly fast-forwards to when Cora is an old woman and her niece is asking how she could have considered joining, and Cora is like, it was a different time, dear, and it’s jarring as fuck. And then Moriarty does it again: in New York, Cora and Louise see a show, and Moriarty jumps in to tell us that oh my god, you guys, did you know that Josephine Baker was working backstage at that show?! It’s clumsy and obvious, and reading the book felt, at times, like Moriarty had a list tacked next to her computer titled Important 1920’s Events to Cover and was trying to check off as many as she could.
Ultimately, this was a disappointment. Cora Carlisle’s story is a good one, and it didn’t deserve to be overshadowed so thoroughly by Louise Brooks. At least I got another book to add to my reading list: Lulu in Hollywood, Louise Brooks’ autobiography of her career. At least that one will give me the story I wanted to read.
Verdict: two out of five stars