Chaperone (Moriarty)

The Chaperone
Laura Moriarty, 2012
Penguin Group USA
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781594487019

The Chaperoneis a captivating novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 and the summer that would change them both.

Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will transform their lives forever.

For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.

Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s,’30s, and beyond—from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers, and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women—Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December 24, 1970
Where—Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
Education—B.S.W. and M.A., University of Kansas
Currently—Lives in Lawrence, Kansas

Laura Moriarty received her master’s degree from the University of Kansas, and was awarded the George Bennett Fellowship for Creative Writing at Phillips Exeter Academy. She lives in Maine. (From the publisher.) The Center of Everything is Moriarty's first novel. Her second, The Rest of her Life, was published in 2007, While I'm Falling in 2009, and The Chaperone in 2012.

From a 2003 Barnes & Noble interview:

• There are other Laura Moriartys I shouldn't be confused with: Laura Moriarty the poet, and Laura Moriarty the crime writer. If it helps, I'm Laura Eugenia Moriarty, though I've never used my middle name professionally.

• I got my first job when I was sixteen, cooking burgers at McDonald's. I've been a vegetarian since I was ten, so it was a little hard on me. I'm also technically inept and kind of dreamy, so I frustrated the guy who worked the toaster to the point where he threatened to strangle me on a daily basis. I kept that job for two years. I gave Evelyn a job at McDonald's too, and I made her similarly unsuccessful.

• Another job I was really bad at was tending bar. I was an exchange student at the University of Malta about ten years ago. I thought I wanted to go to medical school, so I signed up to take all these organic chemistry and physiology classes. In Malta. It was terrible. The Maltese students were into chemistry. I had a lab partner named Ester Carbone. There was a rumor my instructor had his house built in the shape of a benzene molecule. I couldn't keep up. I dropped out in February, and I needed money. Malta has pretty strict employment laws, and the only job I could get was an illegal one, working at a bar. I don't know anything about mixed drinks, and I don't speak Maltese. I think I was supposed to stand behind the bar be American and female and smile, but I ended up squinting at people a lot, so eventually, I was in the back, doing dishes. That was the year I started writing.

• The Center of Everything has a few autobiographical moments, but not many. I grew up with three sisters in Montana. When you say you're from Montana, people get this wistful look in their eyes. I think they've seen too many Brad Pitt movies. I saw A River Runs Through It, which is set in my hometown, Bozeman. That movie drove me nuts: I don't think anyone is even wearing coat in the whole movie. They can't keep filming up there in August and tricking everyone. Of course, now I live in Maine.

• I have tender hands, and the worst thing in the world, for me, is going to an event that requires a lot of hand shaking. Some people shake nicely, but some people have a death grip, and it's really painful. The thing is, you can't tell who's going to be a death gripper and who isn't. Big, strapping men have shaken my hand gently, but an elderly woman I met last month almost brought me to my knees. She was smiling the whole time. I went to a hand shaking event a month ago, and I went along with the shaking, because I didn't want to look rude or standoffish or freaky about germs. But hand shaking just kills me. I'm not sure what to do about it. I went back to Phillips Exeter a month ago, and a very polite student reintroduced himself to me and extended his hand to shake. I actually tried to high five him. He looked at me like I was a crazy person. My sister told me I should take a cue from Bob Dole and carry a pen in my right hand all the time, so I might try that.

• When asked what book most influenced her career as a writer, here is her response:

It's difficult to pick just one, of course. But I will say that while I was writing The Center of Everything, I read Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World, and it made a strong impression on me. I only knew about Sagan from watching the Nova Channel when I was a kid, but I happened upon an essay he'd written before he died. I was so impressed I went to the library and checked out some of his books. In The Demon Haunted World, Sagan stresses the importance of skepticism and rational reasoning when considering the mysteries of the universe.

It's easy for us today to see the insanity of the witchcraft trials, but Sagan gives a sympathetic account of how frightening the world must have seemed in those times, and how quickly our ability to reason can be dismissed in the face of fear and superstition. Today, Sagan points out, we have crop circles, alien abductions, and religious fundamentalism; the book has a great chapter called "The Baloney Detection Kit," an important tool for any open-minded skeptic. What I like most about Sagan is that he seems skeptical without coming across as cynical. He looks at the vastness of the universe and the intricacy of the natural world with so much wonder and awe, and he's able to translate it to a reader who isn't a scientist, such as myself. I also noticed how he refrains from making fun or putting down his opponents; there's such a generosity of spirit in his writing. I tried to put a bit of Sagan in Evelyn, the narrator of The Center of Everything. (Author interview from Barnes & Noble.).

Book Reviews
Throughout The Chaperone, her fourth and best novel, Laura Moriarty mines first-rate fiction from the tension between a corrupting coastal media and the ideal of heart-of-America morality. . . . . Brooks's may be the novel's marquee name, but the story's heart is Cora's. With much sharpness but great empathy, Moriarty lays bare the settled mindset of this stolid, somewhat fearful woman—and the new experiences that shake that mindset up.
San Francisco Weekly

Film star Louise Brooks was a legend in her time, but the real lead of The Chaperone is Cora Carlise, Brooks' 36-year-old chaperone for her first visit to New York City in 1922. As Cora struggles to tame Louise's free spirit, she finds herself moving past the safety of her own personal boundaries. In this fictional account of Cora and Louise's off-and-on relationship, Laura Moriarty writes with grace and compassion about life's infinite possibilities for change and, ultimately, happiness.
Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Chaperone
is the enthralling story of two women...and how their unlikely relationship changed their lives.... In this layered and inventive story, Moriarty raises profound questions about family, sexuality, history, and whether it is luck or will—or a sturdy combination of the two—that makes for a wonderful life.
Oprah Magazine

In her new novel, The Chaperone, Laura Morirty treats this golden age with an evocative look at the early life of silent-film icon Louise Brooks, who in 1922 leaves Wichita, Kansas, for New York City in the company of 36-year-old chaperone, Cora Carlisle... A mesmerizing take on women in this pivotal era.

With her shiny black bob and milky skin, Louise Brooks epitomized silent-film glamour. But in Laura Moriarty's engaging new novel The Chaperone, Brooks is just a hyper-precocious and bratty 15-year-old, and our protagonist, 36-year-old Cora Carlisle, has the not-easy mission of keeping the teenager virtuous while on a trip from their native Kansas to New York City. After a battle of wills, there's a sudden change of destiny for both women, with surprising and poignant results.
Entertainment Weekly

With her bobbed black hair and strikingly red lipstick, Louise Brooks was a femme fatale in early Hollywood movies. In this latest novel from Moriarty (The Center of Everything), a teenage Louise heads to New York City in 1922 from her home in Wichita, chaperoned by proper Kansas matron Cora Carlisle. Once in New York, Louise is accepted by the renowned Denishawn School of Dancing and is on her way to fame. An innocent young adult she is not—hard as nails, she is both self-promoting and self-destructive. The real story here, however, is about Cora, a kind soul despite the shocks she has endured at several crucial times in her life. Cora's visit to New York gives her a new perspective and changes her life in unexpected ways. The novel, which spans the next six decades of Cora's life, also reminds us how dramatically American life changed over the 20th century. Verdict: Moriarty is a wonderful storyteller; it's hard to put this engaging novel down. Fans of the Jazz Age and sweeping historical fiction will likely feel the same way. —Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
Library Journal

The challenges of historical fiction are plentiful—how to freely imagine a person who really lived, how to impart modern sensibility to a bygone era, how to do your research without exactly showing your research. And yet, when this feat is achieved artfully (we’re talking Loving Frank or Arthur and George artfully), it can transport a reader to another time and place. Laura Moriarty’s new novel, The Chaperone, falls into this category.

[Moriarty] imagines the life of the actual Wichita matron who accompanied future silent film star Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 as a favor to Brooks' parents. Although Louise Brooks was a larger-than-life personality whose memoir LuLu in Hollywood is held in high critical esteem, she's given short shrift by Moriarty, whose interest lies in Cora Carlisle.... Cora seems to represent the history of women's rights in the 20th century. An early suffragette, she applauds the end of prohibition and champions birth control and racial equality. She also gives Louise good advice during a rocky period in her career. Unlike the too-infrequently-seen Louise, the fictional characters seem less alive or important than the issues they represent.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The Chaperone opens with Cora Carlisle waiting out a rainstorm in a car with a friend when she hears about Louise Brooks for the first time. What do we learn about Cora in this scene? What does it tell us about her and the world she lives in? Why does Laura Moriarty, the author, choose to open the novel this way? Why do you think she waits to introduce us to Brooks?

2. When we first meet Louise Brooks, she seems to be the complete opposite of Cora, but the two women form an unlikely bond anyway. Are they really so dissimilar? What does Cora learn from Louise? Do you think Louise learns anything from Cora?

3. When Cora arrives in New York, the city is worlds away from her life in Wichita. How much do you think Cora actually embraces New York? When she returns to Wichita, what does she bring back with her from New York? What parts of her stayed true to Wichita all along?

4. The limits of acceptable behavior for women were rapidly changing in the 1920s, and both Cora Carlisle and Louise Brooks, in their own ways, push against these boundaries. Discuss the different ways the two women try to change society’s expectations for women. Is one more successful than the other? What are the values involved in each woman’s approach?

5. Cora becomes frustrated with the hypocrisy of the women in her Wichita circle of friends and yet she herself chooses to keep details about her own life secret. Do you think she should be more open about her life choices? What are the risks for her if she were to be more open?

6. Cora Carlisle hopes to find the secret of her past in New York City but discovers that the truth doesn’t align with either her expectations or her memory of the past. Why do you think Laura Moriarty has chosen to leave Cora’s history ambiguous? What does this tell you about Cora? How has Cora’s attitude toward her past changed by the end of The Chaperone?

7. Cora narrates the events of the book from a perspective of many years later. What juxtapositions does this allow her? By placing Cora’s narration at a time of radical social change, what parallels is Moriarty making?

8, Think about Louise Brooks’s behavior. How much of it would be considered scandalous today? What values has society held on to? In what ways has society changed?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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