Monday, September 24, 2012

Short and Sweet Review: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

Years ago I read the biography of Louise Brooks, a fiesty young woman from Kansas, who lived in the early years of the last century. Louise pushed the boundaries of her day-she was politically inappropriate, and just flat out inappropriate in pretty much every way that could be unacceptable to the times she grew up in. In fact, her behavior wouldn't be so acceptable these days, either. She was damaged, and a user of people in her quest for personal gratification and success. So of course, she went to Hollywood.

The early years in the movie business, before talkies and before the censors really came to power, someone like Louise was tailor made for success. And ultimately, failure. It wasn't that she wasn't talented enough to make it, talkies and all, it was that she was born to rebel...and drink. It's a bad combination in any line of work, Hollywood just gave you the chance to do it in a big way.

So when I read the concept of Ms. Moriarty's book, The Chaperone, I was intrigued. Cora Calisle was a very traditional woman tasked with chaperoning 15 year-old Louise for a summer in New York City as she pursued her dreams with a dance troupe, hoping to never return to Kansas again.

It's been a while since I read that biography, so I can't say for certain how accurate the details of Louise's life may be (I'll assume the author did her homework and aimed for accuracy...for the most part). That's fine, I'm here for the fiction as well, and the story of our chaperone, Cora, as well.

Seemingly uptight Cora has some still water running deep along with a hidden past she's come to New York City to unearth. But she can't help worrying about Louise's virginity-though it's fairly clear to the reader that that's probably a done deal by the time Louise hits the big city.

Along the way we learn some sad truths about Cora's life, as well as Louise's. We find sympathy for both and wish them both well...though we rightly worry that Louise is a ball of fire blazing brightly on the path to burning up. Cora's life, however, takes some extremely surprising turns! I have to hand it to Ms. Moriarty for throwing some totally unexpected plot developments my way.

But the title of our book is The Chaperone, and about half way through I started to think that the chaperoning aspect-and the Louise storyline-were just a gimmick to bring in readers. In the end, Louise moves on and we spend the rest of the book following the results and continuing story arc for Cora, with only occassional glimpses of Louise's life.

At one point Cora finds an opportunity to guide Louise back onto a path that could hold happiness for her if she plays her cards right. Of course, Louise doesn't like to play by the rules of anyone's game but her own, so you know that's not likely to end up well. And the author can't rewrite history with this historical character-it's not a what-if kind of tale.

In the end the story is, of course, about Cora, the chaperone. That title leads you to believe that's the focus of the story-Cora's opportunities, seized or blown-to make a difference in her young charge's life. But it's not. The chaperone part is just a set up to tell you Cora's story-from beginning to end, and Louise is the collateral damage used to bring in readers.

Ms. Moriarty deserves props for creating a life with lots of surprises. We find out that Cora can be, in her own very private way, equally outrageous as Louise in the eyes of her contemporaries-were they to ever find out. But the title and the concept of the book are misleading. I felt a little cheated in the end. I felt that, as chaperon, Cora dropped the ball in many opportunities to make a difference-or at least find a closer connection-with Louise. She freaked out one too many times for my tastes-after a while you expect some level headedness from the adult in the room.

Once Louise has served her plot purpose she's shipped off to Hollywood and out of the story, leaving the other half of the book to tell us a much longer story that has nothing to do with the title or the initial set-up. It's two books in one and two stories in one. That kinda bugged me. I'd have been happy to read either one separately, but together each story felt short shifted-particularly Louise's.

If you're curious about Louise Brooks there are plenty of books out there-including her own version, Lulu in Hollywood. If you want a period piece about an orphan who endures difficult life twists and finds happiness in unconventional ways, read The Chaperone. But don't read The Chaperone if you want both.  

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