In 1922, only a few years before she will become a famous film actress and an icon for her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita for a summer in New York City and the avant-garde Denishawn school of dance. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone. Cora Carlisle is neither mother nor friend, just a respectable neighbor whom Louise’s parents have hired for propriety’s sake. But upstanding, traditional Cora has her own private reason for making the trip.
Of course, Cora has no idea what she’s in for; young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob, is known for her arrogance, her disregard for convention, and her keen intelligence. By the time their train pulls into Grand Central, Cora fears that supervising Louise will be at best exhausting and, at worst, impossible. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will be the most important of her life.
For Cora, New York holds the promise of discovery that might answer 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 discovers 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.
In this beautifully written and deeply moving novel, fact and fiction blend together seamlessly to create a page-turning story of two very different women who share a desire for freedom and fulfillment.
Cora Carlisle is a thirty-six-year-old woman in 1920 married to, Alan, a successful lawyer and living in Wichita. Together they have twin boys who are away working on a farm for the summer and will be entering college upon their return. Cora is a strong woman, very traditional with her dress and a strong sense of right and wrong.
Abandoned as a child and living in an orphanage in New York, she is put on a train and adopted by the Kaufmann’s and raised in the Midwest on a farm. She has always wanted to return to New York to try and find her birth mother so when an opportunity arises for her to “chaperone” fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks to New York for five weeks during the summer she jumps at the chance. Alan is busy at work and with her boys away it’s the perfect time for her to go.
Louise Brooks is an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous young girl with black hair cut into a very short bob. She is a dancer and will be attending the Denishawn Dance Studio for the summer in the hope of being chosen as their star dancer and moving onto bigger and better things.
Cora soon realizes that her chaperoning job isn’t going to be quite as easy as she first thought when Louise disappears at the train station while waiting with their families to see them off. When Cora excuses herself to find Louise who said she was going to the bathroom, she instead finds her outright flirting with a man. Once on the train it doesn’t take Cora long to realize that Louise is going to run circles around her, is a tad mouthy, arrogant, and quite openly flirtatious. Cora tries to lecture her about respectability and being moral but Louise just scoffs at her. Cora has always tried her best to do what society and everyone else expects her to do rather than seek her own happiness, however that is about to change.
Upon her return from New York, she learns something about Alan that she’d rather not know and this provides her with the courage to abandon her old ways and begin living for her own happiness rather than what other people’s expectations of her happiness should be.
During the last two-thirds of the book, we see a completely different Cora whom I came to admire. I think she showed a lot of courage and perhaps some may see her as being less than honest but I was rooting for her all the way. If anyone deserved a true sense of peaceful fulfillment and happiness, it is Cora Carlisle.
The Chaperone is a wonderful novel of self-courage that is filled with insight yet gracefully poignant. I loved this book and might just read it again!