In 1926 the future silent-screen actress Louise Brooks, then fifteen and living with her family in Wichita, won a summer scholarship to the prestigious Denishawn Dance Company in New York. A fifteen-year-old girl could not live in New York alone. Her mother had younger children and could not accompany her. A chaperone was arranged, a middle-aged woman of social standing and propriety named Cora Carlisle. Such is the premise of Laura Moriarty's new novel THE CHAPERONE.
The book unfolds two stories: Louise's and Cora's. Louise's sticks closely to fact, but is mainly used as background for Laura's. [SPOILER ALERT] The chaperone is a woman hiding many secrets: a sordid childhood, a gay husband, and eventually a working-class lover. This sounds like soap opera, but Moriarty is interested not in sensationalism but in the capacity of characters to change. Laura, who begins with hopeless resignation to her situation, grows into a woman not only able to bring about happiness for herself but also able to accept it in forms she once despised, including her husband's long-term relationship with his lover. To do this, everybody involved ends up living public lies but private truths, and this dichotomy gives the book its tension.
Some reviewers faulted the book for covering such a long span of time--Laura's whole life--that decades sometimes flash by. I can't agree. It takes an entire lifetime to come to the emotional place that Laura eventually reaches. I found it refreshing to read a modern novel with the social sweep of the Victorians'.
As for Louise--well, her story is already known. Beautiful, intelligent, narcissistic, and self-destructive, she ended poor and alcoholic. And yet she, too, is a fascinating character. I recommend this novel.