Laura Moriarty’s first three books, The Center of Everything, The Rest of Her Life, and While I’m Falling, are contemporary coming-of-age stories set in Kansas. Her books are beautifully written and heartbreaking; perfect for the Jodi Picoult readership without being emotionally over-the-top. Her new novel, The Chaperone, takes a step in a whole new direction for such a talented writer, as she ventures into historical fiction about the woman who chaperoned the teenage film star Louise Brooks from Kansas to New York in 1922.
The protagonist in The Chaperone is Cora Carlisle, the mother of two boys who just graduated high school. The empty nest leaves her restless, and she decides to take on the job of escorting the beautiful and difficult Louise Brooks to New York City to study modern dance. Louise’s parents seem too busy and disinterested to accompany their daughter to the big city. Something is off with Cora’s husband, Alan, who is busy with his law practice, and we quickly learn that Cora isn’t just seeking an opportunity to experience the excitement of New York. She’s on a journey to understand her roots.
At the beginning of the novel, Cora is portrayed as the fuddy-duddy any young girl would resent. Cora and Louise are counterpoints to each other. Their differences become evident before the train has even left the station out of Kansas, when Louise disappears and Cora finds her flirting outrageously with a strange man. Cora attempts to impress on Louise the importance of a young girl’s reputation if she wants to marry well. Louise intends to be rid of her as quickly as possible so she can start experiencing an adult life. The difference between them is that Cora undergoes a huge internal transformation over the course of the novel, while Louise ultimately remains the same. That’s what sets this apart from a coming-of-age novel and instead creates an inspiring story of a woman who reinvents herself later in life.
When Cora and Louise are situated in New York, it’s soon evident that Cora is in many ways a more urgent ticking time bomb than Louise. Cora did grow up in the Midwest, but she came to Kansas as an orphan on a train when she was just a young girl. Originally from New York, Cora was just one of many children at the turn of the century who were shipped out of the city and given away at train stations and churches, often chosen to perform manual labor on farms. Cora was lucky and ended up with a kind couple with no children, but she still wonders why her parents abandoned her. As Louise pursues her career and various flirtations, Cora returns to the orphanage she grew up in and sews up the threads of her childhood, at the same time paving a new and surprising future for her adult life. There’s atmosphere and historical detail that puts the story in context and makes it seem bigger than just the individual characters.
As much as I enjoyed The Chaperone and recommend it as both a summer read and book club pick, I’ll finish off by saying that at the end of the day, my favorite Moriarty novel is still her first, The Center of Everything, about a girl coming of age in rural Kansas with a devoted but irresponsible single mother. While not her most crafted novel, Moriarty’s breakthrough talent sparkles with the energy of a debut, and if I revisit any of her novels, that would be the one.