“The Chaperone”, by Laura Moriarty

Cora Carlisle is a Wichita housewife who is given the opportunity to chaperone 16-year-old Louise Brooks on a month long trip to New York City during the 1920’s. Louise is a precocious and selfish teenager who goes to NYC to study with a famous dance company and would go on to be a silent film star (in real life). Cora’s motive for going on the trip is so she can try to find out about her birth parents. She spent the first six years of her life in a NYC orphanage, until an orphan train delivers her to a family in Kansas. Although she was happy with her adopted family, she really wanted to know more about her roots.

During the first part of the book, the author jumps back and forth between Cora’s childhood and her trip back to NYC as an adult. The parts about her childhood are well done and the author provides enlightening information about life as an orphan at the turn of the century. For the trip to NYC, the author crafts a story with a lot of tension – tension between Cora and dreadful Louise and tension between Cora and her own moral code.

The book lost my interest around the halfway mark, when the author started to get too preachy. Preaching to me is a surefire way to turn me off. The author tried to pack in so much about the social issues of the time that it began to detract from the storyline. She awkwardly wrote in little vignettes, like some of Cora’s contemporaries trying to ban drug stores from displaying condoms, that were out of place and didn’t advance the story. It became so bad that I made a little game out of trying to keep a list of all the social injustices she tried to weave in. Here it is:

  • Callous treatment of orphans

  • Bullying of adopted kids

  • Intolerance of homosexuality

  • Misguidedness of Prohibition

  • Child molestation (by a Sunday school teacher, of course)

  • The injustice of segregation

  • Mistreatment of immigrants

  • Social class unfairness

  • Oppression of women

  • Birth control (the author even worked a couple of references to Margaret Sanger)

  • The plight of unwed mothers

  • The stigma of divorce

I’m sure I missed a few. She even felt compelled to make Cora’s lover a German immigrant who was interred by the US government during WWI. I get it. There were a lot of social issues in the US during that time period. But I really didn’t need to hear three separate times how women were encouraged to use Lysol as birth control (yikes!). It was distracting. It became farcical.

Oh, dear. Now I’m being preachy.

So the last part of the book was a rather tedious summary of the next 60 years of Cora’s life. She finds liberation by altering her moral code and ends up in a highly improbable domestic arrangement. She briefly crosses paths again with Louise, who blew a successful film career because of some serious character flaws. Cora lives into her nineties and takes some secrets to the grave with her – secrets I won’t reveal here in case you still want to read this book despite this review.

Not everyone shares my opinion about “The Chaperone.” PBS is making a movie based on it. I’ll probably pass on watching it.

6 thoughts on ““The Chaperone”, by Laura Moriarty

  1. thank you for the great review. my late husband was an avid book reader. he called most of the popular high selling new novels “formula” books which he said “had a little something in them for everyone,e.g., homosexuality, racism, adultery, etc.”


  2. Thanks for this excellent review. You may have saved me from reading an annoying book! I agree that books fail when authors try to throw in too many “lessons” – I’d much prefer they stick to one or two critical issues – if they are central to the story. Otherwise, I’d much prefer they stick to giving us an engaging plot and compelling characters. Prioritize!


  3. In the end, I liked the story because it was original. I just ignored the preaching and fell into the story. (Your list made me realize how much I ignored!!) I liked the beginning when she was an orphan and liked the attempt to discover her past. Nothing tied up neatly but then life is like that. I read “Orphan Train” which was a good book and explored some of the issues without the preaching. I found the German immigrant and Louise’s husband’s situation pretty unlikely, but the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ got me through it. I really liked her other book (oops, can’t remember the name) but it just ended abruptly and left me hanging. I think I read this one to see if there was any continuity. There wasn’t, sadly.


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