Friday Reads: "The Chaperone" by Laura Moriarty

I've been spending a lot of book time lately with angsty teens. (See here, here, and here for some of those reviews!) And yes, most of those characters had very good reasons for being angry or upset or afraid, and I loved all of their books—but all the same, I needed a little break. I needed to spend some book time with an adult. So, I picked up Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone, which my mom gave me for Christmas. I liked it...although I didn't love it in a "I must tell everyone I've ever met to read this book" kind of way. So why write about it here? To my amusement, it tied in really well with everything else I've been reading lately. The book is set mostly in New York City in the 1920s, like Libba Bray's The Diviners (which I read three weeks ago), has an angsty teen at its heart. The main difference is that the protagonist and narrator isn't the teen, but the girl's appointed chaperone, a woman in her mid-30s charged with keeping the angsty teen on the straight and narrow.

The Chaperone

The quick synopsis: It's 1922. Cora Carlisle of Wichita, Kansas, agrees to chaperone a young Louise Brooks (who will go on to become one of the biggest stars of silent film) in New York City while 15-year-old Louise attends a dance intensive with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (legends of modern dance, a small detail that was so cool to me, as a dancer!). Cora has her own motives for going to New York: she spent her first few years in a Catholic orphan's home in Manhattan, before being sent West on a train and placed with adoptive parents. She wants to learn more about her biological parents and her formative years—but Louise turns out to be almost more trouble than the trip is worth. She's sarcastic, critical, and headstrong. She flirts with men twice her age, and older. She escapes one night and comes back drunk on illegal gin. In short, Cora more than has her hands full.

What's funny is that in a Young Adult book, Louise would be the feisty heroine, living life to the fullest (and making often-terrible decisions) while her stodgy, corseted chaperone struggles to keep up. Because her story is told from the grown-up's point of view, however, Louise is mainly annoying. And yet, Cora was just as frustrating a character in many ways. She is rather uptight and stodgy. She gets incredibly self-righteous and lecturing about Louise's "virtue." She's overly hesitant and fearful in scenes where you want her to just "man up" and do something. Even as I was learning more about Cora's past, her adoptive parents, her friendly-but-cool marriage, and her feelings of disconnect, of not having a true home—despite all that, for most of the book, I was rooting for her but not necessarily loving spending time with her.

It's only after that pivotal summer with Louise that Cora gets interesting. I don't want to spoil anything major, but she meets someone who changes her life. She learns something about Louise that changes her perception of her young ward. She goes home a stronger, more tolerant person who cares deeply about making the world a better place for young women, despite sometimes-unpopular opinions about how to accomplish that. And she watches Louise's Hollywood rise and fall, from a distance, with new perspective.

In short, this book surprised me. I liked it, and if you like historical fiction, you might like it, too. There were a few twists that I did not expect and that worked really well to push the story along. And in the end, Cora's growth as a character was extremely satisfying, even if much of the time you spend with her feels like waiting for her to come into her potential. If I had a star rating on this blog, I'd give it 3/5.

Up next... I'm rereading Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star so that I can immediately move on to the brand-new sequel, The Madness Underneath. So stay tuned for those reviews!