It’s 1922, and thirty-six-year-old Cora Carlisle is about to embark on a journey that will forever change her life: she is to escort petulant, fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks from Wichita to New York City for a few weeks while Louise takes dance classes at a prestigious studio. Though she’s still years away from achieving fame and fortune, Louise is already showing signs of the temperamental woman she’ll later become; she knows she’s gorgeous and unique, and little does Cora know what a handful Louise will be on their trip. Still, Cora is willing to put up with anything Louise throws her way; she has her own private reasons for wanting to travel to New York, and though she doesn’t know what she’ll find when she gets there, she’s determined to find answers.
The trip is life-changing for both women, who are generations apart in aspirations and values. One of the things I love most about The Chaperone is how well Moriarty captures a decade in which female gender roles were undergoing a dramatic shift. A former suffragette, Cora feels like an out of touch old woman compared to forward-thinking Louise. She still wears a corset and ankle-length skirts, insisting on escorting Louise everywhere for propriety’s sake. Louise, meanwhile, is fearless — and reckless — in her youth, embracing the flapper style and experimenting with the power of her sex appeal. The more Cora tries to rein Louise in, the more Louise fights back.
Yet while the book initially seems like it will revolve completely around this pivotal trip to New York, the trip is only a small part of a much larger picture. Once the trip is over, readers are left to follow Cora through the surprising twists her life takes. Louise will always be a part of Cora’s life and she’ll appear again decades after that fateful trip to New York, but ultimately Louise remains a secondary character throughout the novel, too absorbed with her own life to ever make Cora a real part of it.