The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
This is the story of a middle-aged woman from Kansas who accompanies a young dancer to New York in 1922. The dancer is Louise Brooks, a real person who became a silent film star, a trendsetting and boundary-crossing flapper. The chaperone is Cora, who is more complicated than she appears. Skillfully managed flashbacks gradually reveal what’s really going on under Cora’s prim surface. The surprises in these flashbacks are pretty good, so I’ll be vague here to avoid spoilers. Cora’s time in New York changes her life, giving her the courage to demand some happiness for herself and causing some real upheaval back in Kansas. By the end of the book, she and the unusual family she gathers around herself have made a place for themselves that’s a tiny oasis of tolerance and love in the middle of repression. The way she is able to make her strange arrangement work, especially in this time period, is kind of inspiring.
The ending drags on a bit, telling about all of the social changes Cora witnesses as she grows old, as well as the changes in her family. But overall, this is a very enjoyable book about a heart opening to compassion, rich with period details and strong, descriptive sentences. In a way, Cora is the entire women’s movement in a microcosm. In the first scene we learn she was a suffragette, and by the end she’s supporting birth control and gay rights. The idea that a single person could change her opinions and attitudes so drastically in such a short time gives me hope for America.