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The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty: Review

One of the essential tasks in crafting a good book is convincing readers they’ re entering another world, not simply a concoction of your imagination. So if you’re writing about an earlier time, like say the 1920s as Laura Moriarty, the author of The Chaperone, has done, it’s vital not only to get the details right — but make sure they feel right. So it jarred me to stumble upon the word, humongous, early on in the book. I know the word humongous, is well . . . humongous now, but was it then? lists its first use in 1967. Also would a 15-year-old girl use the word f**k when arguing with someone twice her age who is not a parent, back then? I worried every time I turned the page I was going to encounter “awesomenext.

The Chaperone is the story of Cora Carlisle of Wichita, Kansas, a 36-year-old woman wife and mother hired to accompany Louise Brooks, 15, to New York City in the summer of 1922 where Brooks is attending dance school. While it’s a fictional account Moriarty uses Brooks, an actual silent screen star, as a prop upon which to reveal Cora’s awakening on a number of levels. Not only does the trip to New York City give Cora the opportunity to seek out her birth mother, but it also forces her to confront her feelings about race, prohibition and sexual freedom.

Cora’s early years are spent in an orphanage in New York City until she’s hustled away one day on a train to be adopted. Luckily, the family who takes her in is a kindly Wichita couple who show her only kindness. Tragically they die when she’s a teen and a lawsuit by their children throws her into the arms of a much older, handsome lawyer, whose interest seems initially puzzling. That’s until she catches him in the embrace of another man and realizes her marriage is a sham which she silently but unhappily endures as the relationship continues.

As she boards the train with Brooks, she attempts to be seen as a pillar of virtue, but already we know her dark secret. As the summer progresses and she and Louise lock horns, more of her secrets are revealed. The book paints a realistic picture of the time, its restrictive sexual mores, racism, homophobia and drinking laws crippling its inhabitants. Back then fear of unwanted pregnancy was paramount and the story nicely depicts why birth control was so essential. For this reason alone, it’s a good book for younger people to read.

At the same time, I never really got into Cora’s head. How could she morph from likening losing one’s virginity to unwrapping a candy (and men not wanting unwrapped candy) to taking a lover, the caretaker of her former orphanage, all in one summer. It’s a longer journey than that. She never talks about longing for physical intimacy, nor yearning for the touch of a man. Having a 15-year-old boast about her sex life and laugh in your face seems unlikely to change your feelings.

The depiction of Louise Brooks as a selfish, unhappy character also seems a bit harsh. Still, the book is readable and moves along nicely. It’s just that when I read a book, I’m going on a voyage and I want to feel I’ve left this world for another one.

The trip was comfortable — I just never arrived at the destination.

Georgie Binks is a former CBC reporter who has written for Reader’s Digest, the Walrus and – Entertainment

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