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‘The Chaperone’ mixes fiction with 20th-century history

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Author Laura Moriarty’s latest novel is one of those books that turns expectation on its head.

Diving into Moriarty’s “The Chaperone” (Riverhead Books, 2012), I anticipated a tale whose heroine is Louise Brooks, the real-life silent-film actress of the 1920s and 1930s, with a secondary fictional character named Cora Carlisle, the woman selected to chaperone Louise on her first trip to New York City. But Cora stars in the book’s leading role, with Louise simply providing the spark that sets Cora’s life in a very different, and ultimately much more fulfilling, direction.

“The Chaperone” begins in 1922, when Cora’s neighbor in Wichita, Kan., asks her to accompany the neighbor’s 15-year-old daughter, Louise, to New York, where she is scheduled to audition for the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing. Cora, a 36-year-old housewife with two children in college, is bored with her life and frustrated with her marriage, so she jumps at the opportunity. In addition to acting as Louise’s chaperone, Cora wants to conduct research in New York about the circumstances of her birth. All she remembers of her early life is time spent in an orphanage before a farming family in Wichita adopted her.

But Cora gets much more than she bargained for during her trip to the big city. Controlling the headstrong teenager proves a challenge while juggling the information Cora uncovers about her birth parents and her relationship with Joseph, a German immigrant she meets at the orphanage.

“The Chaperone” chronicles Cora’s awakening, in all senses of the word. During the first part of her pivotal journey with Louise, Cora attempts to handle and educate her charge by uttering conventional and rather meaningless homilies: “She’d been a fool all summer, an unhappy woman spouting hurtful, stupid maxims about candy and virtue, telling lies to an injured child,” writes Moriarty of Cora’s fruitless attempts to corral Louise. But after discovering the truth about her parents and meeting Joseph, Cora realizes that she possesses the power to forge a more meaningful life for herself when she returns home.

When Cora returns to Wichita, she adds some spice to her life by moving her lover and his daughter into her home and fervently pursuing liberal causes. The last third of the book, which quickly spans 60 years, documents Cora supporting the birth control movement and establishing a clinic for unwed mothers in her hometown.

A highlight of the book is its vivid descriptions of life in the Big Apple circa 1922, contrasted with life in a Midwest town during the same period. Another draw is Louise, whose character jumps off the page – her unconventional attitudes and behavior provide fun for readers.

In the end, however, I expected more from Cora. I hoped that she would surprise me and do a great deal more than run a clinic and live an unorthodox, secret life at home. Cora’s potential is largely untapped, both in her activities and in her inner life, which Moriarty could have explored at a more leisurely pace.

“The Chaperone” reminded me of “The Paris Wife” (Ballantine Books, 2011). They are both historically detailed books that I think most women’s book clubs would enjoy.

Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.

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