I'm not sure what review or what description actually was the tipping point to make me read this book. I like books that are set in the early 1900's...such an interesting time for women...but there are so many, you have to wade through them all to find the good ones. I will tell you that initially, the synopsis did not reach out and grab me.
But then the reviews flooded in. A tidal wave of love is what it was. I was offered a review copy of the audio from Penguin, and I was soon on the bandwagon (or surf board?) myself.
Synopsis: It is the year 1922 in Wichita Kansas. Cora Carlisle is a middle-aged, married woman whose twin sons will soon be off to college, and has accepted the task of chaperoning the willful and spirited 15 year-old Louise Brooks to New York City for a month to study with a prestigious dance school. Not only does this give Cora a chance to feel productive, but also offers her the opportunity to do a little fact-finding at the orphanage where she spent her childhood. Will she be able to track down her biological mother, and if she does, will this resolve all the unresolved questions Cora has had her entire life? Or will it be a devastating disappointment?
Once in New York, Cora finds herself in way over her head on so many levels. Louise is impossible to control, and seems intent on destroying her reputation. Cora confronts multiple obstacles in the search for her mother as well. On all fronts, the events that occur in her five weeks in New York will have impacts on Cora for the rest of her life.
We also slowly delve into Cora's background. Her trip on the orphan train from New York to Wichita as a young girl, her adoption by kind country folk, and her courtship with her husband. At first glance, it seems that Cora's life is typical, maybe even mundane, with a grounded sense of propriety. But as we learn more about her, we find that she is anything BUT ordinary.
My thoughts: I suspect that nothing I would say to you in a synopsis of this book would come close to the full impact on your heart and mind when you turn the last page. And I have been intentionally vague because the plot must be explored blindly. The story starts out nice, interesting, easy-reading...la la la. But two-dimensional. Then it slowly unfurls, opening like a gorgeous, blooming flower. It sounds corny, I know, but that is how it felt. Everything became complex and rich and layered and big.
There are so many topics addressed in this book, I wouldn't even know where to begin. Just simply the expectations of women during this time period offers limitless treasure to be mined. But there is an immigrant story, homosexuality, adultery, birth control, schadenfreude, prohibition, pedophilia, unwed mothers...and that is just off the top of my head. This story has got it all.
Did it all seem like too much? Not really. It all blended effortlessly because the author allowed it to unfold slowly - just excellent story-telling. It did occur to me, somewhere in the last quarter of the book, that the story seemed to have wandered off the path. Like after being absorbed for ten hours, I looked up and noticed I was lost! How did I get here!? It starts off about Louise Brooks (who was a real person BTW!), sort of, but ultimately is only a vehicle for Cora's transformation. But I didn't mind all that much. The journey was fun.
I loved Cora. She is an evolving woman who recognizes where she has been, where she may have been wrong in her preconceived notions, and where she wants to go. She adapts, she is practical, and she is a survivor. I loved watching her come into her own in her mid-life.
A few words about the audio production: Here was the cherry on top for me. The narrator was Elizabeth McGovern, the actress. I've heard some say that her British accent (which she used for the general narration, and then switched to her native Midwest accent for character dialogue) as fake. And it IS fake...girlfriend grew up in Illinois. But she currently lives in London, she is on Downton Abbey, and I had no issue with it. I love it when seasoned actors and actresses narrate an audio, because the story comes to life. It feels natural. McGovern was absolutely delightful.
Listening time: 13 hours, 14 minutes (384 pages)
5 out of 5 stars