The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty tells the story of one of the silent screen’s most well-known legends, Louise Brooks, in her pre-fame days. At the age of fifteen, Louise leaves Wichita, Kansas for New York City, where she’ll study at the Denishawn School of Dancing.
But Louise can’t just run off to New York City alone. Her mother, though usually careless in her parenting, has the sense to send a chaperone along. Accompanying Louise is Cora Carlisle, a seemingly perfect homemaker. She’s 36 years old, her twin sons are about to start college and she’s married to a successful lawyer.
But Cora has a lot of secrets, and she also has her own reasons for wanting to travel to New York. As it turns out, Wichita is not her hometown: she has a history on the East coast.
The Chaperone is a good novel. I could barely put it down, and really enjoyed reading it. There are some inaccuracies to Louise’s story (for instance, she actually studied at Denishawn’s Los Angeles studio) and Moriarity sometimes gets a bit heavy-handed with her symbolism (namely, Cora’s restrictive corset), but the story is a worthwhile one and it’s well-told.
One aspect of Louise’s story that seems to be startlingly accurate is the portrayal of her mother, who isn’t exactly painted in the best light. She’s based on fact, though. It has been reported, even by Louise herself, that her mother never wanted children and didn’t properly care for them. Louise was also blamed by her mother for the abuse she endured as a child. It’s heartbreaking to read the novel and know that these parts of the story were true parts of Louise’s life.
Biographical accuracy aside, I loved the fact that, rather than trying to embody the screen persona that Louise Brooks is known for, Moriarity decided to tell her story indirectly. Though her story is told, her purpose in the novel is to serve as a catalyst for Cora’s growth.
Cora’s story is just as fascinating as Louise’s rise to fame. Though she lives the rest of her life in Kansas after her return from New York City, the work that she accomplishes in Wichita (which I can’t mention the nature of without spoiling the story!) goes to show that “ordinary” people — not just stars like Louise Brooks — can lead extraordinary lives. This is an important message in today’s celebrity-obsessed world, where it seems like most people want nothing more than to be famous.
Biographical purists will find fault with Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, but for everyone else it’s a great read. I’m glad to own it and would certainly recommend it.