Friday, March 29, 2013

The Chaperone

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty (Riverhead Books, 2012) 371 pages

I am so easily seduced ... mention the opportunity to read a piece of fiction in which one of my personal heroes plays a role and this lady is definitely for turning. I am invariably disappointed by these fictional accounts; however, it appears to be one of my addictions.

Here the future silent film actress and style icon Louise Brooks is chaperoned on a trip to NYC to audition for the Denishawn dance company in the summer of 1922. Her chaperone is a starchy Wichita, Kansas matron named Cora Carlisle. But this is not told as Brook's story really; it's mostly Cora's story and I'm afraid it's fatally dull despite its many Dickensian twists and turns.

At the turn of the 20th c., Cora was abandoned as an orphan and sent to a home for "friendless girls" run by nuns in NYC. At a very young age, she was boarded on an "orphan train" (a real historical occurrence in the U.S.) and sent across the Midwest, hopefully to be adopted by a childless couple. Cora is one of the lucky ones - selected by the kindly Kaufmans who, after a quiet and uneventful life with Cora, unfortunately die relatively young in an accident on their farm.

As a teenager, Cora is befriended and protected by the young, up and coming lawyer Alan Carlisle who is hired to represent her financial interests when her parents pass away. Alan is handsome, successful, kindly and - even in Cora's own mind - too "good" for her to marry but marry they do. Sadly, Alan has his own agenda in selecting the orphaned Cora and despite the birth of two dearly loved sons, the union evolves into a sham marriage, a cover for Alan's secrets. Moriarty manages to make even this poignant backstory dull.

Her the character of Louise Brooks is but a cartoon, a pastiche of the petulant and sometimes charming mannerisms that she often displayed in most of her films: willful, rebellious, independent. The only glimmer we have of Louise's humanity and a possible explanation for her "waywardness" is her admission in the novel that she was sexually exploited at the age of nine and then in her early teens by persons close to her. In a later scene, when the unchastened, and worse for wear, Louise returns to Wichita to run a dance studio that fails after the career in Hollywood also tanks, there is another moving scene where Cora urges Louise to leave Wichita and her vicious mother Myra to try and find happiness elsewhere. Louise attempts to do so.

But largely, Louise's characterization is paper thin - a pretext for revealing Cora's history when she returns to NYC to seek out the truth about her origins at the home for friendless girls. As is Myra. Louise's mother is a caricature of selfishness and maternal disinterest who is channeling her creativity through her more successful daughter.

Cora is boring, puritanical, racist and moralistic. She is as flat and unwavering as a Kansas cornfield. She changes a great deal, of course, but the transformation never quite seems believable or logical. Sitting next to a "coloured" woman at an all black musical revue cures her of her fear of, and distaste for, black people. Flash forward (briefly) to Cora supporting civil rights workers in the 1960s. It's a cheap ploy. If she is a racist let us understand her fears and motivations don't intercede with some phony future episode which tells us, no, not really, she really wasn't a racist. 

Similarly, the kindness of the German handyman Joseph, who helped her access her birth records, eradicates her fear of immigrants with strange accents not to mention leading her to a bizarre marital arrangement where she invites Joseph to live with her in Wichita in the home she shares with Alan.

Alan, forced to accept this and participate in the elaborate lie that Cora has found her biological brother and his daughter in NYC (in the person of Joseph and daughter Greta), quickly acquiesces to the plan to protect his own secret. Oddly, this brings harmony to the home because now both husband and wife can be with the partners of their choice under a cloak of respectability. 

Several important historical phenomenon are alluded to but never followed up on in a
More Lulu please, less Cora ...
meaningful manner: Margaret Sanger's push for birth control, the prevalence of the views of the Klu Klux Klan, the effects of WWII on American society, the treatment of an "alien" population such as the German-Americans during WWI, the fate of those unwed mothers that Cora tries to assist at "Kindness House" towards the later part of her life. These are far more interesting issues than Cora's problem with her corset of which she complains endlessly. Perhaps this is a metaphor - the corset symbolizing Cora's constrictions in a life that she finally abandons.

Still ... I have to admit that Cora bored me to tears. Her subtle racism, her prissiness, her fixation on propriety as to whether one should have one's hair down in public or speak to strangers in NYC, her adverse reaction to foreigners, her prickliness about Louise's sexual magnetism ... wear the reader down. It's only in the last fifty pages that she begins to resemble a fleshed out woman and not a caricature of small town bigotry.

I am pleased that Cora reaches a feminist epiphany about women, immigrants, blacks and homosexuals but did the novel have to take such a tedious path to do so?

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