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The Chaperone Kindle Edition

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Length: 377 pages Word Wise: Enabled Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
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Editorial Reviews Review

Curtis Sittenfeld interviews Laura Moriarty.

Curtis Sittenfeld Sittenfeld is the author of the bestselling novels American Wife , Prep, and The Man of My Dreams , which have been translated into twenty-five languages. Here she talks with novelist Laura Moriarty about her experiences writing The Chaperone.

Curtis Sittenfeld: You tell the story of two characters whose trajectories overlap--Louise Brooks before she becomes famous, and quietly complicated housewife Cora Carlisle, who serves as 15-year-old Louise’s chaperone in New York in the fateful summer of 1922. Did you always know they belonged in a book together, or did you decide to write about one of them first?

Curtis Sittenfeld

Laura Moriarty: I always found Louise Brooks interesting. She was an icon of the silent-film era, and I knew she’d grown up in Kansas, and that she was smart and rebellious and sharp-tongued. But it wasn’t until I learned that she’d first gone to New York as a teenager with a 36-year-old chaperone that I saw a story I wanted to write. I’m drawn to intergenerational tension, and it must have been strong in the 1920s: I wondered how Louise’s generation of flappers appeared to the women who came of age at the beginning of the century--wearing corsets, long skirts, and high collars. This older generation of women had campaigned for suffrage and prohibition of alcohol; they must have been bewildered by the very different values and sensibilities of their daughters. I liked the idea of a chaperone, someone thrown into this dynamic all at once.

Sittenfeld: Were you a fan of Louise Brooks specifically, or of movies from the 1920s and 1930s generally, or were you exploring an art form unfamiliar to you when you started writing this novel?

Moriarty: I wasn’t that familiar with silent films. I didn’t know, for example, how hugely popular silent films were in the 1920s, how people would go to the movies several times a week. While I was writing the book, I went to see Louise Brooks’ most famous film, Pandora’s Box, at the Tivoli in Kansas City, and it was a lovely experience. You can watch old silent films on DVD or even on YouTube, but it was a different feeling watching her up on the big screen, seeing the film the way people saw it all those years ago.

Sittenfeld: You’ve clearly done a lot of research. What form did your research take? Were there discoveries you made--about Brooks, or the early twentieth century, or Wichita--that particularly captured your imagination? Was there any incredibly juicy details you came across that just didn’t belong in the book?

Moriarty: One of the first things I did, and maybe the most important, was drive down to Wichita and walk around Union Station, where Louise and her chaperone disembarked for New York in 1922. It’s boarded up now, but just seeing the physical place helped me see the story and the journey as real. I read Louise’s autobiography and Barry Paris’s biography of her. I read oral histories of Manhattan in the ‘20s, and I read travel guides from that era as well. I spent a lot of time learning about 1920s fashion, not just what flappers were wearing, but what most women were wearing, what men were wearing. Overall I learned a lot of details about 1920s clothes, cars, kitchen appliances, and food. I had a character eating peanut butter in one scene until I learned that peanut butter wasn’t commercially packaged and sold until 1924. But the biggest challenge was probably getting into the psychology of someone living in that era—to know her values, and how she saw the world.

Here’s an interesting bit about Louise that didn’t get in the book: After she became famous, she and some friends were dining in a restaurant in Europe; she was bored, and she spotted a man she’d been friendly with, and she asked the waiter to summon him. The man didn’t come over right away because he was with a woman, and he didn’t want to be rude. When he finally did go over to Louise’s table, apologizing and explaining his delay, she picked up a bouquet of roses and sliced him across the face with it, the thorns actually cutting his skin so his face was dripping blood. This story, to me, says a lot about the dark side of Louise’s personality. Yes, she was beautiful and intelligent, and she could be very funny, but obviously there was a deep insecurity there, a real destructive rage and immaturity. I couldn’t work that scene into the book, but I knew what it told me about Louise, and I thought about it when I was writing her scenes with Cora.

Laura Moriarty

Sittenfeld: One of your characters was part of the Orphan Train, which placed children with Midwestern families (who also happened to be strangers!). Is her experience based on that of anyone real, or is it more of an amalgamation?

Moriarty: The thing that got me about the Orphan Trains was that the experiences were so varied. Some of the kids went from neglect and hunger in New York to loving farm families who couldn’t wait to fatten them up, who gave them medical care, an education, affection. And some of the kids became the victims of terrible cruelty, and more hunger, and more neglect--it all depended on who adopted them off of the train. Because the experiences of the children were so varied, I wouldn’t say this character’s experience is an amalgamation, though she isn’t based on any one real person either. Her story is just what could have happened to a child, and what probably did happen to many of them.

Sittenfeld: Like Cora, you yourself live in Kansas, and you’ve set earlier fiction there. What do you like about writing and living in a place that’s not considered a literary hotbed? (Admittedly, I ask this as someone who lives in nearby Missouri!)

Moriarty: I love my town, Lawrence, Kansas, so I’m glad I get to live here. I’ve never felt that wanting to write required me to live in New York. There are so many great authors living there, of course, but I can get their books here, or I can read their stories online or in journals. And there’s a great community of writers right here in my town. I teach creative writing at the University of Kansas, and I have creative colleagues and thoughtful graduate students, and I have a writing group I meet with almost every week. I suppose it’s a little humbling to write from Kansas. I know I’m not at the literary center of the universe. But that might not be a bad thing.

Sittenfeld: I want to ask you a variation of a question I’ve been asked. I wrote a novel, American Wife, that borrowed from the life of a real person--Laura Bush--but I changed her name. You’ve written about a real person--Louise Brooks—and used her real name, but she’s no longer living. Do you feel any moral qualms about portraying a real person saying and doing things that you’ve made up?

Moriarty: I was so excited about this book when I started it that I didn’t have a lot of moral qualms. But the more I read about Louise and the more I wrote about her, the more I started to really care for her, and I did worry about getting her right, portraying her in a way that was accurate. I tried to keep my depiction true to what I learned from her autobiography and biographies about her. It’s impossible to know what she’d think of my portrayal, but I hope she would approve. In any case, I don’t think Louise Brooks ever lost too much sleep over what other people thought of her.

Sittenfeld: Your descriptions of Cora wearing a corset are incredibly convincing. Did you--for the sake of research, of course--ever try one on yourself?

Moriarty: I don’t think I’ve ever tried on a corset, though a certain bridesmaid’s dress did require a torturous bustier that will stay forever burned in my sensory memory.

Photo of Curtis Sittenfeld © Ryan Kurtz

Photo of Laura Moriarty © Tracy Rasmussen


"The Chaperone is the enthralling story of two women . . . and how their unlikely relationship changed their lives. . . . In this layered and inventive story, Moriarty raises profound questions about family, sexuality, history, and whether it is luck or will—or a sturdy combination of the two—that makes for a wonderful life."—O, The Oprah Magazine

"In her new novel, The Chaperone, Laura Morirty treats this golden age with an evocative look at the early life of silent-film icon Louise Brooks, who in 1922 leaves Wichita, Kansas, for New York City in the company of 36-year-old chaperone, Cora Carlisle. . . . A mesmerizing take on women in this pivotal era."—Vogue

"With her shiny black bob and milky skin, Louise Brooks epitomized silent-film glamour. But in Laura Moriarty's engaging new novel The Chaperone, Brooks is just a hyper-precocious and bratty 15-year-old, and our protagonist, 36-year-old Cora Carlisle, has the not-easy mission of keeping the teenager virtuous while on a trip from their native Kansas to New York City. After a battle of wills, there's a sudden change of destiny for both women, with surprising and poignant results."—Entertainment Weekly

"Throughout The Chaperone, her fourth and best novel, Laura Moriarty mines first-rate fiction from the tension between a corrupting coastal media and the ideal of heart-of-America morality. . . . . Brooks's may be the novel's marquee name, but the story's heart is Cora's. With much sharpness but great empathy, Moriarty lays bare the settled mindset of this stolid, somewhat fearful woman—and the new experiences that shake that mindset up."—San Francisco Weekly

"Film star Louise Brooks was a legend in her time, but the real lead of The Chaperone is Cora Carlise, Brooks' 36-year-old chaperone for her first visit to New York City in 1922. As Cora struggles to tame Louise's free spirit, she finds herself moving past the safety of her own personal boundaries. In this fictional account of Cora and Louise's off-and-on relationship, Laura Moriarty writes with grace and compassion about life's infinite possibilities for change and, ultimately, happiness."—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“When silent film star Louise Brooks was a sexually provocative and headstrong 15-year-old from Kansas, she traveled with a chaperone to new York City to attend dance school.  In this fascinating historical novel, her minder, Cora, struggles to keep her charge within the bounds of propriety but finds herself questioning the confines of her own life. Thorough Cora the world of early 20th-century America comes alive, and her personal triumphs become cause for celebration.”—People

"Captivating and wise . . . In The Chaperone, Moriarty gives us a historically detailed and nuanced portrayal of the social upheaval that spilled into every corner of American life by 1922. . . . [An] inventive and lovely Jazz Age story."—Washington Post

"#1 Summer 2012 novel."—The Christian Science Monitor

"A fun romp."—Good Housekeeping

"Devour it."—Marie Claire

"The novel is captivating, and the last lines about Cora (you might think I’m giving everything away, but I’m not giving anything away—the story rolls through changes in terrain so subtle that it’s like a train from Wichita to New York and back) capsulate it all, revealing the richness of the saga.”—The Daily Beast

"The Chaperone," an enchanting, luminous new novel by Laura Moriarty, fictionalizes the tale of the very real caretaker who accompanied a 15-year-old Louise Brooks on the first leg of her journey to silent-movie stardom. . . . Moriarty is a lovely writer, warm and wise."—Cleveland Plain Dealer

"It is [Louise Brooks's] endearing and surprising companion Cora Carlisle—a sharply drawn creating—who is the heart and soul of this stirring story.”—Family Circle

"Captivating and wise."—Newsday

“While Louise lends The Chaperone a dose of fire, the novel’s heart is its heroine, who has a tougher time swimming in the seas of early-20th-century America than her ward does. As the story carries on, Moriarty’s greatest strength proves to be her ability to seamlessly weave together Cora’s present, future and colorful past.”—Time Out

“Set to be the hit of the beach read season.”—Matchbook

“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.”—Bookpage

“It’s impossible not to be completely drawn in by The Chaperone. Laura Moriarty has delivered the richest and realest possible heroine in Cora Carlisle, a Wichita housewife who has her mind and heart blown wide open, and steps—with uncommon courage—into the fullness of her life. What a beautiful book. I loved every page.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife

“What a charming, mesmerizing, transporting novel! The characters are so fully realized that I felt I was right there alongside them. A beautiful clarity marks both the style and structure of The Chaperone.”—Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab's Wife and Adam & Eve

The Chaperone is the best kind of historical fiction, transporting you to another time and place, but even more importantly delivering a poignant story about people so real, you'll miss and remember them long after you close the book.”—Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers

Product Details

  • File Size: 1153 KB
  • Print Length: 377 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (June 5, 2012)
  • Publication Date: June 5, 2012
  • Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0072NWKQK
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #13,520 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Laura Moriarty received her master's degree from the University of Kansas and was awarded the George Bennett Fellowship for Creative Writing at Phillips Exeter Academy. The author of The Center of Everything, The Rest of Her Life, and While I'm Falling, she lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was originally attracted to this book by the connection with Louise Brooks, a fascinating and tragic silent screen star. But, as the title suggests, the main character is "the chaperone," Cora. I was totally charmed by Cora, and I have to say she has joined the list of my favorite fictional characters.

Cora seems to have a perfect, but perfectly ordinary, life as the book opens. She lives in Wichita. She's in her mid-30's, married to a handsome, kind and successful lawyer, with two sons. She's no shrinking violet: She was an early "lady driver" and a suffragette, but she is also very traditional, with her high collars and constricting corsets and a strong sense of duty. So it's a bit of a surprise when she offers to chaperone a virtual stranger, the wild and rebellious fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks, to her dance classes in New York.

Cora, we learn, has her own reasons for going to New York. I'm not going to say anything else because I don't want to give away anything that readers should discover on their own. Suffice it to say that Cora's story went in different directions, far from what I had originally expected - - you know, the stuffy middle-aged woman goes wild and learns to enjoy life thanks to the wise teenager. No. It's much better and more unexpected and very enjoyable, primarily thanks to the character of Cora. I just adored her.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Cora Carlisle has decided to do a good deed-she'll escort drop-dead gorgeous 15yr. old Louise Brooks to New York City to study modern dance when her parents are too busy to accompany her. Her two boys have graduated high school and are off to college in the fall, her husband Alan busy with his law practice and Cora sees an opportunity to experience bustling New York. And Heaven knows, it's 1920 and a young girl's reputation is still to be jealously guarded if she is to secure a marriage to the right man.

Cora has the first few glimmerings that she has lassoed a tornado when Louise disappears at the train station while waiting with their respective families to see them off to New York. When Cora catches up with Louise, she's blatantly flirting with a young man, not going to the bathroom as she suggested. Well-read Louise runs circles around Cora on the train trek to New York, flanking and challenging Cora's slightly fussy moral lessons. This girl is out to experience LIFE and Cora is an obstacle to be outmaneuvered .

Meanwhile Cora has some secrets of her own. While she has grown up in the Midwest, she is not a native and Cora explores her orphan roots in New York City. A small history lesson is delivered in Cora's personal history. At the turn of the century, some of New York's orphanages had their healthy young children routinely sent off on trains throughout the Midwest, lined up at train stations and churches and people could "adopt" any of the orphans they wished. Cora was fortunate to end up in a good situation but still wonders who her parents were and why they turned her over to the nuns at the orphange. She learns that and more.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Chaperone

This book is a very engaging tale that takes place during the time when women's corsets are being loosened. While it is an easy read, it has a lot to say, and I think that most readers will enjoy it as much as I did!

This is NOT a coming-of-age story, rather it is a "coming into one's own" novel, or maybe even a bit more like a drama (or "dramedy") of manners. What reading the book really resembles is watching a flower opening. Cora, our protagonist, begins to unfurl and finally come into her own in the course of the book.

In flashbacks, Cora's life story is revealed. In each phase of her life, Cora does for others and does exactly what society expects from her. She spends her early years in an orphanage run by nuns in New York City. She is put on the "orphan train," is adopted by the Kaufmanns, makes a very respectable marriage to Alan Carlisle, and raises two sons. To all outward appearances, Cora has a wonderful life, and she does all that society expects from her.

However, Cora once saw something that Alan would rather she not know about, and this knowledge gives her an upper hand that she holds in reserve. When she sees an ad for a chaperone job that will take her to New York City, she applies and gets the job. Alan is forced to let her do this, and he knows that part of her motivation in going to New York is to seek her birth mother.

As we move into Cora's present tense, first in New York City, and later at home, she begins to do what brings HER joy and happiness. She begins to blossom in these pages, and we have enough empathy to feel for her -- to cheer for her as she finds herself and seeks her own joy, which may be quite different from what society dictates.
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Format: Hardcover
I debated whether to give this book 3 or 4 stars. It was certainly well written. It was a good story that kept my interest throughout the book ( until the very end). I am a big fan of historical fiction and this didn't disappoint in that regard ( although there were times at the beginning when I had to remind myself that it was supposed to be set in the 20's). My main criticism is that the main character ( who is a middle aged housewife from the Midwest and former farm girl) starts throwing off previously held beliefs about social conventions at an alarming rate. Near the middle of the book it almost started to devolve into a sort of silliness as one by one, Cora becomes "enlightened" about a number of mores. I do know the 20's were a time of great social upheaval, but it would have seemed more believable (for this particular character) if perhaps the author would have focused on Cora having one epiphany and her struggles related to it.
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