I’m usually wary of novels, set in a period within living memory, that use real people, who lived and breathed, as characters, but there was something about this book that called me. And I’m very glad I did.
And, of course this isn’t the story of Louise Brooks, silent movie icon; it is the story of one woman who crossed paths with her in one summer that would change both of their lives.
It opens in the early 1920s, the in Wichita, Kansas, where housewife Cora Carlisle has undertaken to act as chaperone to the teenage Louise Brooks, who is heading to summer dance school in New York. At first it seems to be a study in contrasts: Cora is conventional, prim, proper, and always aware of proprieties, while Louise is headstrong, confident and determined to experience everything the world has to offer. But it soon becomes clear that the truth is more complicated than that; that Cora had quite unexpected reasons for wanting to come to New York, and that there was much more to Louise than it had first appeared.
Laura Moriarty handles all of this very well. Her words feel right and are so easy to read that I always felt safe in the hands of a very capable storyteller. She brings the period, in both the small town and the big city, to life. And she weaves in so many themes – racial segregation, prohibition, sex and sexuality, family and identity – in a way that seems completely natural and right.
But I am wary of saying too much, because I think the developments that moved the story forward and developed the characters are best enjoyed first hand. They sometimes took me by surprise but they always made perfect sense.
It was lovely to watch Cora’s journey; so many of her opinions and attitudes changed as she saw more of the world, and as I saw this and as I learned more of her history I grew to like, and admire, her more. She began as an unremarkable small town housewife, but as the story unfolded she became even interesting than her young charge.
When the summer in New York drew to a close Cora made an extraordinary decision. The story should maybe have ended there, it would have been a wonderful ending, it would have left so much to think about. But it didn’t.
A shorter second act carried the story forward, through the rest of Cora’s life. The contrast between Cora, who defies convention but keeps up appearances, and Louise, who in unconcerned about either, is fascinating but there are problems. The years rush by, there are none of the intriguing questions that underpinned the first act, and thought the story is plausible – and Louise’s real life has clearly been well researched – it is a little more difficult to believe that what went before.
It said much that was interesting, and I was fascinated to see the future unfold, but it wasn’t quite as strong as what had gone before. Maybe a simple afterword would have worked better.
But I still have to say that The Chaperone is a gem: a wonderfully readable story of two fascinating women with much to say about their lived and their times.