A novel about the silent film star Louise Brooks’s chaperone in New York? Though it got good reviews, it did not sound like my kind of thing.
Until we went to The Bookworm in Omaha, an excellent independent bookstore.
It’s a cinch to hand-sell me books. I once came home hypnotized by an enthusiastic bookseller with a copy of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and let me tell you, it is nothing like his Bread and Jam for Frances.
But in this case, nobody had to hand-sell me anything. I simply gave in to the commercial appeal of an attractive display.
Piles of copies of The Chaperone, with its lovely cool blue cover, and with a flapper dress added by a staffer, made me pick up the book. Seeing the display was almost as good as going to The Joslyn Art Museum (our next stop) and wouldn’t that anyway be a fascinating subject for an exhibition? Those publishers’ and bookstore displays?
I very much enjoyed The Chaperone. It is one of those well-written, well-plotted pop-literary page-turners that should appeal to book groups.
This is not a novel about Louise Brooks, though she is a character. The heroine is Cora Carlisle, a 36-year-old Wichita housewife who chaperones Louise Brooks one summer in New York. Louise, raised in Wichita, has, at age 15, won a place at a prestigious dance school, Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. When Cora, the respectable wife of an eminent lawyer, applies for the job of chaperone, she discovers that Louise’s listless, intellectual mother, Myra, wants to get rid of her difficult daughter.
Cora has a special reason for wanting to go to New York. Although no one except her husband knows she was adopted, because there is a stigma, she wants to find out who her parents are. As a young child, she was sent from a New York orphanage on an orphan train. Moriarty describes the orphan trains that transported thousands of children from the east coast to the midwest and west, where they were adopted or fostered.
Both Cora and Louise have family secrets. I won’t reveal too many of them, but one of Cora’s saddest secrets is that she has not had sexual relations with her husband since she was pregnant with their 18-year-old twins.
Louise, a difficult, rebellious teenager, who reads everything from Edith Wharton to Schopenhauer, sneers at Cora, even despises what she reads, and tries to push her buttons. She flirts with men, laughs at Cora’s prudery, and argues about prohibition Even on the train to New York, she is rude and makes no effort to talk. She holds up her Schopenhaurer like a wall.
Fine, Cora thought. She didn’t need the girl to be social. She’d come prepared with her own reading, which she now took out of her bag. Perhaps she didn’t keep all sorts of books lying around her parlor, but she enjoyed a good story as much as anyone. For this trip, she’d brought a Ladies’ Home Journal and the new novel by Edith Wharton … understanding that whatever title she chose would fall under the girl’s critical gaze, and would no doubt be reported back to Myra, Cora had gone to the bookshop and purchased The Age of Innocence, which, although it was written by a woman, had just won the Pulitzer Prize, and therefore seemed beyond reproach from even the worst kind of snob.”
Louise is not impressed by the Pulitzer Prize, and doesn’t like The Age of Innocence.
Both Cora and Louise learn and benefit from their relationship that summer, and Cora manages to help Louise later at a difficult point in her life.
This moving, easy novel is one of my favorite light books of the summer. In fact, I might add it to my “If I Were Oprah Book Club” picks, after the more challenging Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch.