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Every breeze whispers Louise...,
This review is from: The Chaperone (Hardcover)
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My title is deceptive, since Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone is only peripherally about Louise Brooks, but the iconic silent film star is crucial to the plot. Without her, Cora Carlisle would not have had a reason to travel to New York in 1922, and to try to uncover her roots while her young charge runs headlong towards her future. Cora's story is compelling and forms the major part of the novel. (I should point out that Cora's narrative is fictional, but Louise's conforms to the facts of her life as outlined in various biographies of the actress.)
I first heard about Louise Brooks from Kenneth Tynan's excellent New Yorker magazine essay, The Girl in the Black Helmet, which detailed the rise and fall of the dancer-turned-actress, who had a short but dazzling film career and a long decline. Several times over the past 30 years various people have revived interest in Brooks by showing her best-known films, including Pandora's Box. Brooks had a troubled relationship history and a problem with alcohol.
However, in The Chaperone, she's a fresh, beautiful 15-year-old dancer from Kansas on her way to take modern dance classes in Hew York City, hoping to join the Denishawn company. Her mother Myra, an eccentric who famously said she would have prefered a career to having her four children, arranges for Louise to be accompanied by Cora Carlisle, a local woman known for her social standing and good character. Married to an attorney and the mother of two sons, Cora's reputation is excellent - however, unknown to her friends in town, Cora has a number of secrets, one of which is that she was adopted as a small child, and she wants to find out whatever she can about her roots in New York.
Cora and Louise predictably have a hard time adjusting to each other; Louise is openly contemptuous of her chaperone's old-fashioned mores and preachy warnings about associating with strange men, and Cora is frustrated by Louise's need to be the center of attention. They eventually form a fragile bond.
While Louise takes her dance classes, Cora uses the time to find the orphanage from which she was sent out on the "orphan train", which led to her eventual adoption in Kansas, and befriends a German man who works at the orphanage, Joseph, to whom she tells many of the secrets about her life.
Over the course of the novel and their lives, Louise and Cora both return to Kansas, both considerably changed. Cora learns to stand up for herself and to get what she wants out of life. In many ways, the quality of her life goes up while Louise's goes down, and Moriarty brilliantly and movingly tells Cora's story, partly in flashback and then into the future. I found the book entertaining, emotionally true, and very well-written, and I didn't want it to end. I've read a previous book of Moriarty's - The Rest of Her Life - which I enjoyed very much, but this one is even better. I highly recommend it and I hope you will give it a chance.
And if you've never seen Louise Brooks on screen, give yourself a treat and check out her films Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, both of which are available on DVD. She was amazing to watch, not only because of her beauty, sensuality and charisma, but because of her naturalistic acting, highly unusual for the period.