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'The Chaperone' review: It's captivating and wise

"The Chaperone," by Laura Moriarty
When precocious 15-year-old Louise Brooks -- future silent film star with the signature black bob -- comes to New York for the summer of 1922, she's accompanied by a 36-year-old chaperone, Cora Carlisle, from her hometown of Wichita. Cora may not have an easy time of it. (Riverhead, June 5)
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THE CHAPERONE, by Laura Moriarty. Riverhead, 371 pp., $26.95.

Silent-screen actress Louise Brooks, with her black Dutch-boy bob, has endured in popular culture as the most recognizable and iconic flapper. In addition to the signature haircut, the frank sensuality of her dancer's body and the world-weary expression in her huge brown eyes captured the dangerous recklessness of the New Woman.

In "The Chaperone," Laura Moriarty's captivating and wise fourth novel, we meet Louise long before her arrival in Hollywood. The year is 1922, and the place is Wichita, where a car with an electric starter is considered a luxury and the Ku Klux Klan prospers. Fifteen-year-old Louise, a precocious dancer with an ambitious artiste mother, has been invited to take summer classes with the legendary New York dance troupe Denishawn, but she may go only with a proper chaperone. Cora Carlisle, a frumpy housewife, inexplicably volunteers.

Moriarty was inspired by the beleaguered real-life chaperone who accompanied Louise on just such a trip, but she has imagined the rest of Cora's story.

From the moment they step on the train east, Cora realizes she's got her hands full. "Surly and scheming," Louise flirts with any male, young or old, and gives Cora the slip at every opportunity. Cora tries to explain the enormous consequences if someone were to spot an unescorted young woman in, say, the dining car with two firemen: "Louise, I'll put it to you plainly. Men don't want candy that's been unwrapped."

Cora gradually reveals her motives for taking this two-month trip in New York. The proper facade that she has presented to the good citizens of Wichita for 20 years is not entirely accurate. She hopes to track down someone important to her while Louise is at dance class.

During the course of a steamy New York summer, Cora slowly shakes loose the Victorian notions of propriety and sexuality that have constrained her like the stifling corset she insists on wearing. Prodded along by Louise, she comes to admire the painted women at the Ziegfeld Follies and sits in an integrated audience at the all-black jazz musical "Shuffle Along."

But even as she develops gumption, Cora realizes that Louise's out-of-control behavior is more than teenage rebelliousness. "Louise had a momentum," Cora thinks. "It didn't matter if she was headed up or down."

The last 80 pages of "The Chaperone" follow Cora's and Louise's trajectories after the summer of '22. Louise's self-centeredness and ambition propel her to Hollywood and film stardom, but she flamed out quickly, spiraling into alcoholism, mental illness and poverty.

Moriarty gives us a historically detailed and nuanced portrayal of the social upheaval that spilled into every corner of American life by 1922. Rebels like Brooks, despite the personal cost, emboldened women of all ages and classes to upend their conventional lives. In Moriarty's inventive and lovely Jazz Age story, Cora sums up her journey best: "The young can exasperate, of course, and frighten and condescend, and insult, and cut you with their still unrounded edges. But they can also drag you, as you protest and scold and try to pull away, right up to the window of the future, and even push you through."

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