The Chaperone is a captivating novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 and the summer that would change them both.
Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will transform their lives forever.
For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.
Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s,’30s, and beyond—from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers, and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women—Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them.
Rich with the society norms of the 1920s and later, The Chaperone is a well-researched historical fiction novel with a focus on the scandalous underbelly of the “prestigious and upright” people in Wichita, Kansas.
“To someone who grows up in the stockyard, that smell just smells like air. You don’t know what a younger person might someday think of you, and whatever stench we still breathe in without noticing.”
I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. The Chaperone is a book club read, so it is definitely not a book that I would’ve ever selected for myself, but it actually held my attention most of the way through and I had difficulty putting it down. However, it was one of those types of stories that is like a train wreck…where you just can’t look away but it’s definitely not a “good” thing.
On one hand, I genuinely appreciate how researched this novel was and how much of the society was revealed. In casual conversations, in how people interacted with each other, the posters that were on the walls of stores, the women’s rights movement, everything about this book screamed 1920s and 30s and I truly felt transported back 100 years. The book is incredibly well-written. But on the other hand, the story itself didn’t impress me at all.
I’d like to start by saying that I had to research Louise Brooks and her chaperone (real name: Alice Mills) multiple times throughout reading because my opinion of books typically change when I know that there are true facts at play. Everything in this book about Louise Brooks (the *facts* mind, obviously not the conversations) were pretty much dead on with what Google says is true about her (I’m actually interested in reading her memoir now). However, The Chaperone–Cora Carlisle, in this book is completely fictional. There’s almost nothing known about the real chaperone, Alice Mills, which makes Cora’s story just that, a story. SO. That being said, I had a difficult time liking Cora’s story because it was so…weird. And fake.
I liked Cora. I liked Cora a LOT. She’s such a sweet person that genuinely cared for Louise’s well-being and I sympathized with her plight. The first half of the book gave me Anne of Green Gable vibes so I was invested in Cora’s life. But I don’t care for how things ended for her and this is something that I can’t speak openly about because it is a major spoiler. The best way I can describe my feelings regarding the last half of the book is that it made me feel icky with the deception. I understand the thought-processes of the characters and when I remembered the times they lived in, it made me sad that they considered what they did the only option (and perhaps it may have been), but it didn’t make it sit well with me any better. I also thought it was very strange that the author, who took such care in researching the whole of the novel, took a person from history that we know so little about and weaved such a dramatic and disgracing story for this woman. I read the snippets about Louise’s chaperone from her own memoir, and was even further confused that this book didn’t even incorporate the true facts that we DO know. I would be mortified if a future author concocted such a bizarre story and marketed it as being inspired by me!
The other issues I had were the on-page sex scenes that made me uncomfortable. There were three, one of which was gay. They weren’t grossly detailed, but there was enough that I kindly flipped the pages muttering “TMI”.
In complete review, this book wasn’t bad enough that I wanted to stop reading (obviously), in fact, most of it was Cora and Louise exploring New York in the 20s and I liked tagging along. I really enjoyed the author’s writing style and I was invested in Cora’s story until it got weird. I enjoy books set in the 1920s and 1930s, and that was definitely an era where strange things happened across the nation, so it wasn’t like I didn’t expect some vulgar things to happen in The Chaperone. I just don’t like that things were never resolved with Cora and her family, and that the author alluded to a “happily-ever-after” with such a big deception left open. It kind of gave the impression that we were supposed to be proud of Cora for her secret life.
So, I give The Chaperone 2.5 stars (rounded up on sites that don’t accept halves).