Book review: Laura Moriarty’s “The Chaperone”

By Julia M.

New York in the Roaring Twenties: A metropolis full of life, music and adventures. It is at this point in time that the 15-years old Louise Brooks, soon-to-be one of the biggest silent movie icons with her own signature haircut, attends a well-known dancing school in New York. In The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty’s fourth novel, we get acquainted with the silent-movie star long before her arrival in Hollywood.

Some might expect, after having read the blurb on the back of the book, that the novel consists mainly of the story of Louise Brooks; however soon the reader realizes that it is the character of Cora Carlisle and her life story that takes central stage in this novel. Louise Brooks is just a minor character who offers a common thread throughout the novel and represents a vicarious icon of her generation’s atmosphere and values.

Cora Carlisle lives a placid life in the small city of Kansas. Both of her sons have moved out, and it is only her and her husband Alan who have remained in the big house where they live. In her spare time Cora meets friends for tea and attends charity events. Myra Brooks, who has an reputation for being arrogant, is looking for a chaperone to accompany her 15-year-old daughter, Louise Brooks, who has been invited to take classes at a famous dancing school in New York. Very interested in the offer, Cora quickly applies for the job. Soon we learn the real motives for her wanting to take the two-month trip to New York. After arriving in New York, Louise attends dancing school classes every day, while Cora wanders through the streets looking for something as she has a very special and secret connection to the city.

Set in the Jazz Age, the novel reflects a colorful era full of upheaval. It shows the clash of two opposing characters: Cora is a woman with very traditional values and views, deeply rooted in her time and often prudish, which at times makes it hard for the reader to identify with her. However, as is made clear in the novel, Cora’s strict veneer hides a sad fate. By contrast, Louise Brooks, the iconic flapper tries to break out of old conventions. She seems more modern than most of the characters and wants to explore the heady world of New York, which often conflicts with her chaperone Cora. Her actions, which openly break the taboos of the time, nowadays seem normal to us.

Moriarty creates a differentiated and realistic portrayal of the Twenty’s in her historical novel, which doesn’t reduce the period to its most stereotypical aspects, like the prohibition, women with bobs and cigarettes, long dance nights and exuberance. Rather it gives the reader a good insight into life and problems of that society with the help of the characters Cora and Louise. It addresses the topic of emancipation but also the social situation in post-war New York critically and multifariously.

It is a fascinating social novel that takes the reader to a journey into New York’s 20’s and lets the time come to life with its vivid language.

 

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