It was about this time last year when Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone started popping up like a weed, the kind of weed people enjoy like dandelion wish flowers. On the subway, the art deco cover would whisper “Hello there. Read me why don’tcha.” And I’d whisper back “Meh, no dragons.” And whoever happened to be holding the book would screw up her face and back away. And then I would wave, to the book not the reader, of course, and the book would continue to soak in its 15 minutes without a care if I ever read it or not, a.k.a. playing hard to get.
Sometimes the crazy popularity of a book is a turnoff because it reads like a force-fed meal. Other times, like with John Scalzi and George R.R. Martin, the popularity creates this great big bandwagon with free brownies and bottomless, spiked Shirley Temples that you may as well hop on unless you hate all things fun. Guess which pile this book belongs in for me. Come on, guess.
It’s 1922 and a willful Louise Brooks is in luck. A middle-aged neighbor named Cora Carlisle has volunteered to escort Louise from Wichita, Kansas to New York City for the summer so Louise can dance. If Louise acts up it’s straight back home, but that’s not likely to happen since Cora has some loose ends in her own life to tend to.
Arriving in NYC in the 1920s must have been exciting for anyone let alone a provocative young girl with stars in her eyes. It takes Cora a while to swallow the shock of seeing women with bobbed hair walking around sans corsets, showing their knees and painting their faces to go to the theater. At first the number one question on her mind seems to be:
How would you tell if a particular woman was of a certain profession if all women started dressing the part?
The title is “The Chaperone” and thankfully we don’t spend too much time with the rather bratty Louise Brooks. See, Cora is not the born and bred midwesterner she’s led people to believe she is. She’s in New York to dig into her past and try to find out who she really is. The summer changes both women in ways they didn’t expect. Cora returns with her mind pried wide open and a strong desire to have a real impact.
The first half of the book is well done and extremely well researched, if incredibly slow. However, any story set in a sweltering New York City makes me cranky. I work too hard to avoid summer in NYC in real life, don’t wanna have to do it in my reading, too. Fortunately we return to Kansas for the second act.
Cora returns home come fall and the whole feel of the story changes. It kind of morphs into summary mode, marching through decades of Cora’s life through WW II, the Great Depression, birth control and pride parades. Bouncing through time so quickly took me out of the story and I couldn’t get any of the traction from the first half back.
I liked this book okay, and appreciate the sentiment that life is long and if you allow yourself to change and grow, you’ll see what a gift a long life really is. But I’d have to put this in the force-fed meal for women pile instead of the bandwagon party because the second half felt like a different, lesser book. I’m definitely in the minority on this one. Check out these other reviews for views from the other less cranky side:
Book of Secrets (such a pretty site)