Long before LiLo’s every mishap was broadcast across the Internet, there was Lulu – in the 1920’s, Louise Brooks was the toast of Hollywood and a favorite of gossips. Even in the age before 24/7 access to the minutiae of celebrities’ lives, America loved to share the ups and downs of stars. In The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, it’s Louise Brooks whose unconventional life provides plenty to talk about.
The cover features Brooks’ lovely face (although oddly, in a photo without the signature, iconic bangs that are mentioned so often throughout the novel), but the real heart of The Chaperone is Cora Carlisle, the Wichita matron who volunteers to chaperone a teenage Louise in New York City during the summer of 1922. Louise, already a beauty and well aware of the effect she has on men, is quite a challenge for Cora, who is serious about her responsibilities as guardian of the young girl’s virtue. The summer is a turning point for Louise; at the end of her stay, she earns a spot in a prestigious dance company which leads eventually to her ill-fated film career, but the change of direction that Cora takes is actually the more interesting and more moving story.
At 36, Cora is already settling into middle age; a very young bride, her twin sons are on their way to university the summer she finds a way to get to New York City to look for answers from her early years. Alternating with the events of that summer, Cora’s back story unfolds; the reader learns that even respectable society matrons have secrets.
Over the next six decades, Cora’s inner world changes dramatically, as she absorbs the changing social mores of the 1920’s and beyond, she learns to claim her own happiness and to stand up for what she feels is right, even if it isn’t popular. As the years go by, she maintains a soft spot for the troubled star, whose summer dance class gave Cora the opportunity to change her own life forever.
The audiobook is outstanding, with excellent narration from Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora in Downton Abbey).
In related reading, Cora reads Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence; the themes of desire and betrayal are echoed in Cora’s own story, and the curious may want to check Moriarty’s version against Brooks’ own in Lulu in Hollywood, the collection of autobiographical essays published a few years before her death.
Other novels of women’s lives that stretch across many decades:
Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittmann by Ernest J. Gaines
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus
Atonement by Ian McEwan
...And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer
The Color Purple by Alice Walker