While working at my local indie bookstore, I picked up the ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy)for The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty several times before I finally decided to take it home. ‘Downton Fever’, as I call the sudden interest in WWI and the early 1920s, has made me leery of new books about the period. Don’t get me wrong, I love Downton Abbey and several books from and set in that era, but I am always suspicious of media fads.
I decided to take it with me to New York to read if I could not sleep on my flights. As it turned out, I tore through the first 45 pages before they announced boarding for my first flight. Moriarty is a top-notch storyteller and kept me reading through both flights and my layover. Instead of taking a nap in my down time once I arrived, I was compelled to finish The Chaperone.
Cora Carlisle is, for all appearances, an average housewife in Wichita, KS. As the story opens, Cora hears through local gossip Mrs. Brooks needs a chaperone to accompany her daughter, Louise, to New York City while she attends a summer dance school. The word on the street is Louise will be nothing short of a nightmare to the unlucky soul who accompanies her. Despite this warning, Cora contacts the Brooks family and is hired on the spot.
In 1922, most women would have been forced to use great persuasion to convince their husbands to allow such a trip. Cora has something on her husband which allows her to essentially tell him she is going. The secret is not immediately divulged, but if you are like me you will figure it out before it is revealed.
From the moment the train pulls away from the station, Louise proves to be as unmanageable as predicted. Interlaced with her misadventures on the train, pieces of Cora’s personal history are slowly revealed, allowing the reader a glimpse behind her perfect facade.
On arrival in New York both women (though 15, Louise can hardly be described as anything else) doggedly pursue their goals- Louise to make the touring dance troupe, Cora to investigate her past. Along the way, Cora finds her blind adherence to societal norms challenged by what she discovers in New York, especially from her ward. The government crack down on bootleggers suddenly has a very human face. Concern over immodest hemlines pales in comparison to revelations of a far more lasciviousness threat in her own backyard. Black and white morals become far more gray.
By the end of the trip, both are successful in their pursuits and change their lives in unforeseen ways.
Wisely, Moriarty does not end the book there. With a new outlook on life, Cora returns to Wichita, but with bold plans for her future. Through brief glimpses and allusions, rather than lengthy narrative, a complete life takes form. Moriarty does not deprive the reader though. The choice moments tell more of who Cora becomes then a drawn out story could.
There are no edge of your seat dramatic moments in The Chaperone. That is not to say there are not revelations, joy, and tragedy, but Moriarty allows them to play out naturally. It was this pace which caused me pause at the end, trying to decide if I really liked the book or was just entertained by it. Upon reflection, I have to say, I really enjoyed it. The Chaperone is a good example of historical fiction done right, compelling female narrative, and just great writing.