The Chaperone Leads Us Astray

chaperonecoverI picked up the book “The Chaperone” by Laura Moriarty because it had a picture of silent film star Louise Brooks on the cover.  Since I am an insane “Brooksie” fan and have read a good of material about her life, I was curious about what this fictionalized account would hold.  The story follows the life of the unfortunate middle-aged chaperone, Cora Carlisle, who was hired to accompany fifteen-year-old Louise to New York City, when she was studying with the modern dance troop known as Denishawn.  The two women clash immediately clash.  Louise–a free spirit, hedonist, and atheist intellectual (she’s toting a copy of Schopenhauer on the train to NY), scorns the traditional, repressive, and fearful Cora at every turn.  If I hadn’t already known about the character of Louise, I believe I may have abandoned the story early on, as it drags on chapter after chapter on the same theme of Cora’s repressive attitudes, battling with Louise’s smug rebuttals.  This dull first part is relieved by a flash back chronicling Cora’s early life as an orphan, who is set on a train west and adopted by a childless couple.  Unbeknownst to Louise, Cora agreed to chaperone in order to investigate her own roots, hoping to find out something about her parents.  Approximately one-third through the story, Louise reveals a shocking secret from her past, which causes Cora to suddenly re-evaluate her prudish and judgmental attitudes.  I think the book would have been better if it had wound up soon after this climax.  Instead, the story follows Cora back to Wichita, where she takes up her life again under unbelievable circumstances.  The strengths of the earlier portion of the book–Moriatry’s portrayal of the capricious Louise, her ear for dialogue, her vivid descriptions of 1920’s New York–all disappear in the latter half.  The plot, in my opinion, turns a bit ludicrous, and the author resorts to a lot of telling, with huge, long passages accounting for what has happened over several years, instead of letting us in on intimate scenes.  Louise makes a few more appearances in the story, and her life is tracked through references by the characters, but she seems to be nothing more than an awkward prop at this point.  The novel is a clever concept, Moriarty is a talented writer, but it is like a play that has gone on long after losing the audience…

Anyone interested in the life of Louis Brooks should avail themselves of Barry Paris’ “Louise Brooks, a Biography.” It is an exhaustively researched and compelling read on the life of this woman who became an icon of her era.  When looking for Louise Brooks biographies, one must be careful, because there is a lot of sensational, muck-racking, crap out there, mostly because she led such a sensational, “bad-girl” life.  Another wonderful book which includes is a feast for the eyes (because the camera loved Louise) is Peter Crowie’s “Louise Brooks, Lulu Forever.”    louiseface

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