Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: The Chaperone

What can I say, I'm a giver. So when I saw that my mom's birthday was coming up towards the end of 2013, I wanted to give her a present that reflected both her tastes and mine, and got her a copy of Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone. However, what with my mom's Fellowship, and my constant need for new reading material, she handed it back to me - alongside a stack of other as-yet unread novels - and actually I ended up reading it before she did. Oops. Well, isn't it the thought that counts, anyways?

The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty, follows the story of Cora Carlisle, a bored, middle-aged Southern woman who agrees to accompany a burgeoning dancer, the fifteen-year-old girl who would become movie star Louise Brooks, to New York for one hot summer in the 1920s, as her chaperone. However, she didn't bargain for Louise's headstrong and impertinent nature, nor did she factor in the importance her own motivation for the trip would play in her journey, and as the two try and track their dreams around the bustling city, the generation gap closes as Cora learns a little more about what it means to be young, free, and in love.

If any part of that synopsis I wrote up there sounds in the least preachy, self-serving, or over-moralized to you, that's because it was. By the end of the novel, I honestly had to put it down and say to myself, "Wow. I expected a lot less sentimentality from a New York Times Bestseller." Personally, I thought it came off as saccharine and overdone, like a Costco-bought sheet cake with three clear inches of frosting that nobody needed.

I may sound a little harsh. Good. Remember, this is a book that I felt confident in - assured by both NYT and USA Today that it was a #1 pick - enough so to recommend it to my own mother. It promised a character-driven fictional narrative detailing the life of tabloid-maker Louise Brooks, and was set in a terrifically promising time and setting... I mean, who doesn't love New York in the Roaring '20s? However, instead of gritty, historically accurate realism, I got a Lifetime Original Movie. What was marketed as delving into "rich history" and a peek at the "burgeoning movement for equal rights and new opportunities for women" was really just an excuse to exploit past tragedies and inequalities for a new and more involved use. 

One of my biggest problems with the novel was the lead character, who, promised in most marketing blurbs to be sparkling, cynical beauty Louise Brooks, was in fact the dowdy, over-condemning Cora Carlisle. And the book didn't so much as focus explicitly on the summer in New York, but use it as a specific focal point for illuminating on the rest of the book, detailing Cora's depressing past, and dingy future. It shouldn't have been so, either: Cora's life is not at all a bad one, in fact, she essentially gets everything she wishes for, only to find herself discontented with what she does have. Her insufferable whining wasn't even that well-written, either... If I had gotten the impression that her character was meant to be so needy, self-involved and self-important, then I would have lauded it as a solid characterization via inner narrative, but the fact that I think we were actually supposed to root for this egotistical biddy was a major source of annoyance.

I understand that a lot of people liked this book. I didn't. It just lacked anything to really recommend itself to me... no cultural realism, distinctly unlikable characters, misuse of solid plot points and setting, and poor fulfillment of hype really broke it for me. Even if I hadn't gone into it with such high hopes, I still wouldn't have liked it all that much. All in all, I'm going to have to say I wish I hadn't sprung $11.59 for this paperback, because I could have gotten my mom something a lot better.


  1. Wow! I actually just read and reviewed this book on my blog and I really liked it. I can see where you're coming from on some of the points, though. I think I had an advantage over you because I wasn't aware of the hype about this book...I'd literally never even heard of it before picking it up to read for Jazz Age January (hosted by Leah from Books Speak Volumes this month!).

    But I agree with you about how Cora's character was kind of whiny. I mean, her life did kind of suck until she got back from her trip to NYC, but she did kind of complain about it too much. I found myself rooting for her eventually though, because I felt like she grew a lot from her trip to NYC, and she took those lessons and went back to her old life and completely changed everything and made it the life she actually wanted.

    My least favorite part was the ending. It went on and on and on for really no reason, and I was annoyed about that. But I really liked most of the first 300 pages of it :) Sorry you didn't!

  2. Hi, Miranda! :) I just went and read your review! And "Jazz Age January" looks like you guys had some great books... I'm so sad I found out about it a little too late!

    I can get why you loved Cora - she's definitely a dynamic character, and she learned a lot of life lessons along her journey with Louise - but I guess I just couldn't get past her poor attitude and inherent neediness, to the fact that she actually changed some people's lives for the better.

    But MAN was that last 70 pages of a time marathon a bummer! I really, really disliked how long that last bit ran on. Couldn't we have just chopped it off a little earlier? :)

    Thanks so much for coming over to comment!