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.
The story of silent film actress Louise Brooks’ first trip to New York, The Chaperone has the trappings of a typical fictionalized biography. But what makes this book so interesting is that Brooks is not the star. Rather, we are drawn into the world of Cora Carlisle, the middle-aged, midwestern woman who chaperones the wild and irreverent Brooks on her 1922 Manhattan adventure.
At the novel’s start, Cora is living a remarkably vanilla life in Wichita, Kansas—land of sexual prudishness, Prohibition fervor and Klan enthusiasts. What we quickly learn, however, is that Cora’s past is much more colorful: She was born in New York and raised in the Catholic-run “Home for Friendless Girls.” She has no idea who her birth parents are and no claim to “moral legitimacy.”
Thus, when she agrees to chaperone the 15-year-old Brooks during her summer training with a prestigious New York dance company, it is as much to investigate her own history as it is to play babysitter. As one might expect, the flirtatious and black-bobbed future starlet gives Cora a run for her money, and when the “adult” attempts to tame the “child,” she finds herself at the center of her own moral and romantic awakening.
It is, of course, impossible to discuss The Chaperone without mentioning The Artist, this year’s cinematic tribute to the silent film era. Much like the Academy Award-winning film, Moriarty’s book explores the challenges of a changing world. Progress cannot be stopped, she seems to say, and the survivors are the ones who agree to move along with it.
Read a Q&A with Laura Moriarty about The Chaperone.