Friday, August 3, 2012

Beck's Book Picks: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

Today I spent ten hours finishing Laura Moriarty's new book The Chaperone.  My left elbow hurts from being bent so long holding the book up close to my myopic eyes.  It reminds me of the time I took John Irving's novel The World According to Garp with me on vacation with my parents when I was about fourteen or fifteen.  While my parents snored in our room at the Holiday Inn, I locked myself in the bathroom and read the entire novel in one night.  I finished reading the last sentence just as I heard the hotel room door slam and immediately smelled coffee.  Dad was up for the day and I had been up all night reading about degenerates.  Little did either of us know then that in just a couple more years I'd be sneaking in at four in the morning after a long night of heavy drinking with my degenerate friends just as he would be waking up for the day once again.

Watch out kids!  Books are a gateway drug to thinking.  Books like Garp, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The End of the Affair, these were my favorite friends during my lonely young and early adulthood

But now that I'm a middle-aged woman, I've got shit to do.  Rarely do I have time to read a book straight-through like I did before I got a job, got married, and had a kid.

Laura Moriarty makes it even rougher.  I was having trouble putting The Chaperone down. I had read the first seventy or so pages of the novel over the course of a few days.  But today, my first day off in what feels like two weeks what with back-to-back weekends filled with birthday parties and working at the library, I had some rare free time.  Instead of forcing myself to put my bookmark inside the book and hurry off to wherever it was I was supposed to be, I sat in my comfy chair and read.  And sipped coffee.  And answered the occasional question and request for food and drink from my six year old daughter, who herself finished reading Bad Kitty Meets the Baby all by herself yesterday and then immediately began re-reading it today during breaks from playing with Legos and watching "The Goonies" while I was preoccupied with my book.

I told myself I was not going to blog about this book immediately after finishing it, but here I am doing just that.  For one thing, I was freaking tired after focusing so much of my energy on one thing for ten hours.  I needed a break.  So I hung up some laundry, talked some more with my kid and later with Will when he got home from work, and then, after only a two hour break from the book, I sat down at my laptop and my fingers became possessed.  I'm just too excited to not share the good news of this book.  So here I am up all night again, blogging about my degenerate friends.

I don't really even have anything coherent to say about this fantastic book.  Often when I first read a book it affects me personally but I can't quite describe how or why.  I'll probably immediately start rereading it tomorrow so I can geek out in amazement at how Moriarty crafted such a fine story that deals with topics of birth and death and time and how, as our country has evolved socially, so can a person's opinions evolve while that person still remains who they are essentially.  Cora Carlisle is one of the most well-rounded, fleshed out, realistic characters in fiction I've had the pleasure of knowing.  And it's not just the protagonist.  Her husband, his lover, her lover, their nosy neighbors, all seem like living, breathing people who understand what it's like to hide behind secrets in fear that others will judge us but nonetheless somehow find ways to love and live meaningful lives.

And then there's Louise Brooks, based on the real-life movie star.  The plot revolves around one summer when Cora chaperones Brooks on a trip to New York a few years before she becomes a star.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading historical fiction and not a biography.

This book is far beyond celebrity bio, however.  It's about how maybe the reason so many celebrity bios are so trashy is because celebrities, in reality, are just like you and me.   We all have so-called sordid lives.  Celebrities come from backgrounds filled with sexual abuse and suffocating rules and misunderstandings just like you and me.

This book is deep.  It's about loving our enemies not because we've been commanded to do so but because we know them.  We attempt to understand them.  We empathize with them.  It's about busting out of out-dated social conventions that squeeze the happiness from our lives.  Read it.  If you're like me, it will make you feel happy to be alive.

Here are my favorite passages:

From pages 272-273: "It was a formal portrait, and the two adult faces were somber, but the baby, not knowing the rules, seemed to be caught mid-laugh.  Right away, Cora felt the pressure of tears.  Greta.  A happy baby who couldn't know what was coming.  Influenza.  Her mother's death.  Her father's long absence in Georgia.  Loneliness.  Probably hunger.  The New York Home for Friendless Girls, even after her father's return.  The next years would be cruel to all three of them.  Cora didn't dare touch the frame itself, but she leaned forward to study Joseph's younger, unlined face and also, to look more closely at the wife and mother, who was fair-haired and a little stout, and even prettier than Cora had imagined.  But she felt no jealousy, no selfish resentment or need to turn the picture away.  She felt only a pained sorrow for this luckless mother with the serious eyes.  If anything, the dead woman's youth and beauty seemed a reprimand, not because Cora was here now, the first woman in this little room, but because she'd waited so long to come here at all.  She's lived too much of her life so stupidly, following nonsensical rules, as if she and he, as if anyone, had all the time in the world."


From page 325: "Under her hands, under the layers of Raymond's fine shirt and shirtwaist, were the same freckled shoulders she had seen that awful day she thought her life was over - and when she was sure this decent, beloved man was her enemy.  She was grateful life could be long."