Summary from the publisher:
Only a few years before becoming a famous actress and an icon for her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita to make it big 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 is a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip. She has no idea what she’s in for: Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous blunt bangs and black bob, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will change their lives forever. For Cora, New York holds the promise of discovery that might prove an answer to the question at the center of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in a strange and bustling city, she embarks on her own mission. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, it liberates her in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of the summer, Cora’s eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.
I was so excited to receive this book at a BEA event. I’m not a Louise Brooks aficionado by any means—I haven’t seen her films or read her autobiography—but her image is iconic, and I was really intrigued by what her first trip to New York was like. The author won me over even further when she read a hilarious passage where Cora, the eponymous chaperone, tried to explain the importance of maintaining a spotless reputation, complete with metaphors about unwrapped candy. There was no hope for it, I had to dig in right away.
I think what I enjoyed most about The Chaperone was watching the country change through Cora’s eyes. The action begins in 1922, where older women were still wearing corsets and worrying about showing ankles while the younger generation was rolling down their stockings and raising their hems above the knee, and continues all the way through the 1970s. The passage of time really gave Cora an incredible character arc, and I loved watching her evolve from a very proper, conservative, almost priggish Midwestern wife to someone who was able to stand up at a ladies’ luncheon and say that she thought it was fine for pharmacists to sell birth control.
The catalyst for Cora’s change in attitude is Louise, a charge who is as infuriating as she’s fascinating, and whose devil-may-care life keeps Cora on edge, but also teaches her that not everything is so black and white. The scene where the two meet after Louise is forced to move back home was my particular favorite, because the tables were turned and Cora was able to finally offer some advice to Louise that she could take.
The book is mostly Cora’s story, but we do learn a bit about Louise. I was amazed that she survived her childhood, after being brushed off by her resentful mother and absent father and then molested by a neighbor. And experiencing these revelations from Cora’s perspective really helped humanize Louise. It explained a lot about her and made me want to learn more.
The Chaperone is a fantastically written and vividly detailed historical novel, not to mention a very fast read. I highly recommend it.