“Only a few years before becoming a famous actress and an icon for her generation, a 15-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita to make it big 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 is a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip. She has no idea what she’s in for: Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous blunt bangs and black bob, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will change their lives forever.
For Cora, New York holds the promise of discovery that might prove an answer to the question at the center of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in a strange and bustling city, she embarks on her own mission. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, it liberates her in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of the summer, Cora’s eyes are opened to the promise of the 20th century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.”
Thoughts: Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone provides a fascinating look at the shifting attitudes in social mores from the 1920s through the 1950s. Looking past Cora’s very old-fashioned, Victorian views on proper social decorum, especially in the beginning, can be extremely difficult for readers, especially because they are so foreign to today’s etiquette. It is particularly interesting that Cora is so prim and proper in the beginning given Cora’s history as a suffragette, which would indicate a more progressive mode of thought than others in her social set. Her attitudes towards anything that does not fit her idea of proper decorum can be especially bothersome because they are so vehement and mostly socially abhorrent today. Cora’s growing disgust at her own ideas and that of society are a welcome change and help lift a reader from becoming bogged down in the differences between the past and today to allow one to focus on the story itself.
As for the story itself, The Chaperone follows Cora’s life from that first fateful summer in New York as Louise Brooks’ chaperone to her end days many decades later. Her beginnings are told through flashbacks as the story progresses, helping fill in the blanks and provide some explanations for the behavior one sees at the beginning of the novel. Her struggles to watch over the willful and bold Louise, as well as her search for her true beginnings, provide some of the more fascinating elements of the story, and it is with pleasure that a reader watches Cora grow from a horrible snob to someone willing to take tremendous chances to achieve her own personal happiness.
Another thoroughly enjoyable outcome of the novel, especially for history buffs, is Ms. Moriarty’s close and careful attention to historical details. Told over the course of decades, a reader will get an especially vivid picture of Wichita life during the Roaring 20s, through the Depression, and during World War II. Ms. Moriarty captures the confusion, the shock, and the almost visible push-and-pull between flappers and those born and raised in the more conservative Victorian era. The Depression years are particularly interesting because they are so different from the more typical stories of drought, bread lines, and abject poverty. The changes that occurred in the United States in the twentieth century were both massive and exciting, and The Chaperone encapsulates the overwhelming sense of wonder that describes the century so well.
While others might enjoy Elizabeth McGovern as narrator for The Chaperone, I struggled to appreciate her performance. Her normal voice contains a pseudo-English accent that works well on Downton Abbey but is too uptight and snobby for the story she is narrating. It creates an unnatural barrier between the story and the listener and at the same time between Cora and the listener. At the same time, her nasally Kansas twang is a sharp contrast to her natural accent and seems a bit too demeaning for the character and for the story. One never gets the impression that Ms. McGovern is wholly absorbed in the novel itself. Throughout the entire audiobook, it is very apparent that she is reading words on a page. This may not seem like a huge deal, but if one has ever experienced audiobooks in which a listener forgets that the narrator is someone standing in a dark booth, the difference between the two experiences is hugely important. Because of these performance flaws, The Chaperone is one novel enjoyed more via print.
The Chaperone is a novel that is first and foremost about self-discovery. Through Louise Brooks’ irreverent and shocking (for the times) behavior and attitudes, Cora learns that living does not mean following society’s directions but living according to one’s own need for happiness. Truly, Cora learns that coming-of-age can occur at any age, even the ”ripe old” age of 36. The historical details are an added bonus to this enjoyable novel and are what set The Chaperone apart from other coming-of-age stories. It is unfortunate that my personal reaction to Ms. McGovern as narrator was so negative because The Chaperone truly is a delightful story that has captivated so many readers with its luscious attention to detail and mesmerizing characters.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Penguin Audio for my review copy!