59 reviews

The Chaperone
by Laura Moriarty

Published: 2013-06-04
Paperback : 416 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 56 of 59 members
Soon to be a feature film from the creators of Downton Abbey starring Elizabeth McGovernThe Chaperone is a New York Times-bestselling novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in the 1920s and the summer that would change them both.
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Soon to be a feature film from the creators of Downton Abbey starring Elizabeth McGovernThe Chaperone is a New York Times-bestselling novel about the woman who chaperoned an irreverent Louise Brooks to New York City in the 1920s and the summer that would change them both.
Only a few years before becoming a famous silent-film star and an icon of her generation, a fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks leaves Wichita, Kansas, to study with the prestigious Denishawn School of Dancing in New York. Much to her annoyance, she is accompanied by a thirty-six-year-old chaperone, who is neither mother nor friend. Cora Carlisle, a complicated but traditional woman with her own reasons for making the trip, has no idea what she’s in for. Young Louise, already stunningly beautiful and sporting her famous black bob with blunt bangs, is known for her arrogance and her lack of respect for convention. Ultimately, the five weeks they spend together will transform their lives forever.
For Cora, the city holds the promise of discovery that might answer the question at the core of her being, and even as she does her best to watch over Louise in this strange and bustling place she embarks on a mission of her own. And while what she finds isn’t what she anticipated, she is liberated in a way she could not have imagined. Over the course of Cora’s relationship with Louise, her eyes are opened to the promise of the twentieth century and a new understanding of the possibilities for being fully alive.
Drawing on the rich history of the 1920s, ’30s, and beyond—from the orphan trains to Prohibition, flappers,  and the onset of the Great Depression to the burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women—Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone illustrates how rapidly everything, from fashion and hemlines to values and attitudes, was changing at this time and what a vast difference it all made for Louise Brooks, Cora Carlisle, and others like them.

Editorial Review

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The First time Cora heard the name Louise Brooks, she was parked outside the Wichita Library in a Model-T Ford, waiting for the rain to stop. If Cora had been alone, unencumbered, she might have made a dash across the lawn and up the library’s stone steps, but she and her friend Viola Hammond had spent the morning going door-to-door in their neighborhood, collecting books for the new children’s room, and the considerable fruits of their efforts were safe and dry in four crates in the backseat. The storm, they decided, would be a short one, and they couldn’t risk the books getting wet. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. The Chaperone opens with Cora Carlisle waiting out a rainstorm in a car with a friend when she hears about Louise Brooks for the first time. What do we learn about Cora in this scene? What does it tell us about her and the world she lives in? Why does Laura Moriarty, the author, choose to open the novel this way? Why do you think she waits to introduce us to Brooks?

2. When we first meet Louise Brooks, she seems to be the complete opposite of Cora, but the two women form an unlikely bond anyway. Are they really so dissimilar? What does Cora learn from Louise? Do you think Louise learns anything from Cora?

3. When Cora arrives in New York, the city is worlds away from her life in Wichita. How much do you think Cora actually embraces New York? When she returns to Wichita, what does she bring back with her from New York? What parts of her stayed true to Wichita all along?

4. The limits of acceptable behavior for women were rapidly changing in the 1920s, and both Cora Carlisle and Louise Brooks, in their own ways, push against these boundaries. Discuss the different ways the two women try to change society’s expectations for women. Is one more successful than the other? What are the values involved in each woman’s approach?

5. Cora becomes frustrated with the hypocrisy of the women in her Wichita circle of friends and yet she herself chooses to keep details about her own life secret. Do you think she should be more open about her life choices? What are the risks for her if she were to be more open?

6. Cora Carlisle hopes to find the secret of her past in New York City but discovers that the truth doesn’t align with either her expectations or her memory of the past. Why do you think Laura Moriarty has chosen to leave Cora’s history ambiguous? What does this tell you about Cora? How has Cora’s attitude toward her past changed by the end of The Chaperone?

7. Cora narrates the events of the book from a perspective of many years later. What juxtapositions does this allow her? By placing Cora’s narration at a time of radical social change, what parallels is Moriarty making?

8. Think about Louise Brooks’s behavior. How much of it would be considered scandalous today? What values has society held on to? In what ways has society changed?

Suggested by Members

by Kimmieart (see profile) 06/15/16

Should Cora have shared her secret life with her family members?
by flos56 (see profile) 07/30/15

Why would Laura Moriarty title this book The Chaperone when the story spans Cora's lifetime, yet she was only a chaperone for one month?
by lizblair (see profile) 07/05/15

If this book were set in the 60's or current day how would it be different?
What were the ramifications of Cora trying to find her birth mother? Was her mother's reaction justified?
by nanovsky (see profile) 10/17/13

Alan and Raymond's relationship is important to the story. Discuss why and how it helps Cora to grow.
by dahlem (see profile) 09/20/13

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Curtis Sittenfeld interviews Laura Moriarty

Curtis 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?

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.

Curtis 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?

Laura 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’s 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.

Curtis 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?

Laura 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.

Curtis 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?

Laura 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.

Curtis 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!)

Laura 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.

Curtis 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?

Laura 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.

Curtis 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?

Laura 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.

Book Club Recommendations

by mommasue (see profile) 04/25/17
our host did a wonderful tea service, complete with china cups and saucers!

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by sue k. (see profile) 04/25/17

an insiightful and thought provoking book on many levels. Womens issues, sexuality, homosexuality at the turn of last century. Orphan trains, and plight of unwed mothers- as well as a char... (read more)

  "The Chaperone"by Gwen E. (see profile) 10/14/16

I liked that there were so many social issues of the 1920's covered in this book. I liked that it was a special kind of "love", caring, kindness story. Early on we learn that the narrator ... (read more)

  "The Chaperone "by Kimberly M. (see profile) 06/15/16

It was okay. It was interesting. I was more interested in the secondary character that the main character.

  "the chaperone"by Barbara H. (see profile) 03/24/16

by Nancy S. (see profile) 01/27/16

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