Friday, June 29, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The Chaperone is the latest novel by Laura Moriarty, and it focuses mainly on the life of Cora Carlisle, a woman who chaperones a young Louise Brooks to New York City in the 1920s. I decided to pick up this book because of how much I enjoyed Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. Also, I wasn't previously familiar with Louise Brooks, the popular silent movie star, and I figured this was a fun way to learn more about her. 

The Situation: Cora Carlisle is a well-off and respected thirty-something woman with a lawyer husband and two boys away for the summer before going back to college. When another well-known woman in town is heard to be looking for someone to chaperone her young 15 year-old daughter to New York City for a month, Cora decides to take the opportunity, despite the reputation of Myra Brooks, the mother, and also that of Louise, the daughter. Myra is thought to be somewhat of a snob, and the girl isn't much different. Even so, Cora takes on the challenge, and after announcing her decision to her husband, the trip is arranged. 

The Problem: Louise is pretty much every chaperone's worst nightmare. Not only is she a snob like her mother, but she is condescending, self-serving, selfish, flirtatious with any man she can get something out of, disrespectful to Cora, and rude. Basically, she is what I like to call "messy with her insecurities." Thankfully, Cora is on her own personal mission to New York that can distract her from the challenges her charge presents her with, because her mission has challenges of its own. Only her husband knows the real reason she has agreed to this assignment, as anyone else knowing in their social circle would prove problematic. And this isn't the only secret Cora and her husband are holding onto, and it doesn't end up being the last. To my delightful surprise, mostly because Louise is so awful, this book turns out to be much more about Cora and her discoveries than the starlet's rise to fame. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that takes place after World War I and continues as far as the 1970s. What's interesting to me about historical fiction is the fact that it can cover an era more honestly than a writer living during that time would have been able to. Certain subjects, such as contraceptives and birth control, prohibition, adoption, and premarital sex just aren't as taboo anymore. Cora lives in a time where women were ready to petition against drugstores that displayed information on contraceptives, and they were in the majority. The story isn't so much about Louise Brooks as it is about the time in which she came of age and when she was at the height of her popularity. And the scope goes beyond New York City as she and Cora are only there a month, and Cora has her life and family in Whichita, Kansas, where Louise Brooks was from. 

My Verdict: If Louise had more of a presence in this book, I definitely would not have as favorable of an opinion as I do. But thankfully, this novel truly is more about the chaperone, and because of that, I could bear it. It was thoroughly entertaining and interesting, but there were parts that either felt rushed to me or just untrue, not in the sense that I don't believed they happened, but in the sense that they felt like they didn't quite fit in the book, but the author needed something there. Some of it seemed a bit out of reach, but for the most part, I think it was well-written. It is a different perspective on an interesting and transitional time in American history. And by the ending I really felt as if I had been on a journey through a lifetime as well. 

Favorite Moment: When Cora takes Louise to the theater only to realize that not only are black people allowed to sit other places in the theater besides the balcony, but that the musical they are seeing is an all black cast as well as written and produced by black people...and she actually enjoyed it. 

Favorite Character: Joseph, the nice German custodian that Cora meets in New York and is able to help her out with her own personal mission. He is honest and hard-working, the former of which turns out to be sparse among the people in Cora's life. 

Recommended Reading: Of course I have to recommend The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, especially since Cora actually reads the novel during her trip to New York and draws a few comparisons. But I will recommend The House of Mirth as well, as I often thought of Lily Bart, the main character in the book, when it came to Louise's own actions.

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