The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty is a book that made me wonder about how many skeletons some people may have in their closets, shut in there in much the same way as those of the Carlisle family.
When I reached the end of this novel, for some reason, I flipped back to the front inside cover and read “Inspired by the life of silent-film star Louise Brooks.” As I read the book I had no idea that Louise Brooks was a real person, to me she was just part of the background – a vehicle to tell the story of Cora Carlisle. I thought it an interesting idea, to write a novel of historical fiction and have the “real” person be a secondary character.
The Chaperone begins with two women in car, a Model T, a soft top with an electric start, in the rain, chatting. It is the early 1920’s; hemlines are inching up, “a few women showing their knees, right here in Wichita”.
Cora Carlisle, a completely fictional character, is immediately endearing. We meet her as a young child in The New York Home for Friendless Girls. She has no idea who her parents are and she becomes one of 200,00 “orphaned” children who were put on trains and sent out from New York City to be adopted by families in the American mid-west in the early 1900’s. Cora was adopted by a couple who loved and cherished her. She married young, to a lawyer, Alan Carlisle. They move into a large home in an affluent neighborhood, and become parents of twin boys. Life was quite perfect on the surface, although Cora is told she was not to become pregnant again as another birth might cause her death. But with two children to care for, a large home, a husband and a busy social life, her life seems to the reader to be quite perfect. However, there is a “problem” which I will not disclose in this review.
Cora has always wondered about her birth mother and when the opportunity arrives to chaperone a young Louise Brooks so that she can attend a dancing school in New York City Louise jumps at the opportunity. Louise is a precocious14 year old who looks and acts much older than her years. Louise begrudgingly tolerates this Chaperone - it gets her out of Wichita, Kansas and to New York City. Chaperoning Louise is a challenge but Cora holds her own, protecting her young charge and coming to care for this unhappy and ambitious girl.
Cora does make some discoveries about her past while in New York City. Discoveries that will change her life after her return to Wichita and her husband. The years pass, the boys grow into men and have families of their own, never knowing the truth of their parents lives. That is, in the end, what I found so fascinating about this book. As I described the story to my husband it sounded more and more like a soap opera – but it made me also think of the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction”. And, I bet, we all know of families where children conceived by young girls are raised as siblings – or of dead husbands “killed in the war” who were really men who simply left when they learned of a pregnancy, leaving a woman to raise her child alone. Or of the “second” family that surfaces when a man has died, and it is discovered that there was another “wife” and children. Every family has a story!