Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What Did the In-Store Boswell Book Club Think of Laura Moriarty's "The Chaperone"?

This month we discussed Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone.

It's been said in the past that I sometimes use the in-store lit group as a way to read the books I feel like I should have read but I didn't. A couple of times a year I'll tie the selection into an upcoming author event. I've also been known to pick a book because it was on my to-be-read list for its entire hardcover run, but I just couldn't seem to get it higher in the queue. Rules of Civility was a book of this sort, while Beautiful Ruins did double duty; it was not only an upcoming event, but had won the "Daniel's favorite book he didn't actually read" award for 2012.

This month, however, I chose a book because I turned down an author event.When the publisher came to me to host en event for the paperback tour of Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone, I looked at our hardcover sales and saw a very poor number. Now I'm as psyched as anyone about trying to break out a worthy book in paperback as the next guy, and we've sometimes done that to great success. But then I took a look at the Above the Treeline numbers and they were astonishing. The book was selling like gangbusters. It looked like the median number of copies sold at the 200 or so Treeline stores was about a dozen books. That's very strong for a book that was not a major bestseller.

And I looked at those numbers, and I thought, it is not fair for me to take this event. Now I don't think it was a bad thing to be offered it. I am proud of the work we do with our events, and the publicist I was working with has been very happy with our events in the past. We're known for getting good recs, helping with media, doing creative displays, helping with some ads and underwriting, and of course, sometimes featuring upcoming authors in in-store book clubs. How did I let The Chaperone get by me? I had even read one of her previous novels, The Center of Everything, and liked it just fine.

There are several ways to get books to work in the store. One is simply a function of publicity and reviews, both local and national. Mike Fischer's review of HHhH in the Journal Sentinel was really the impetus for us selling enough copies to be #9 of the Treeline stores. The book's only been out for a few weeks but we've actually taking the paperback lead--we're #1 in the country (congrats, Mike). National reviews and interviews drive lots of sales, from The New York Times to The Wall Street Journal to the Financial Times.

But alas, regional papers don't really help that much, unless of course we link to them in places like the blog and email newsletter, or post them on the pole that shelters our shelving cards. So when the New York Times review of The Chaperone was a little shrill, it didn't matter that the Washington Post and Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Wichita Eagle (no surprise there, right?) reviews were excellent. And I don't know why, but we just didn't have a read on the book in hardcover. Hey, there are only about 15 of us, and of course when you look at potential readers for the book, half of us are just not going to read it, no matter how good it is.

I'm happy to say the book club did help kickstart the book for us in paperback; while we're not at the top of the heap, in terms of how bookstores are selling it, at least we're in the pack, not trailing behind like a lonely caboose.

I think there might be another reason, however, why I didn't pick the book up as an advance copy, and that might be Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures. While Emma Straub's novel came out a few months after this one, I read it very early, so in my head, it was competing a bit. And the book's have some similarities, beyond both being published by Riverhead, albeit from different editors, with Straub's novel coming from Megan Lynch and Moriarty's from Sarah McGrath. As I read The Chaperone, I thought of how Straub told the story of celebrity's trajectory from in the inside out, while Moriarty's was from the outside in.

And goodness, all those novels with historical New York settings I've been reading, from Rules of Civility to Fin and Lady to The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (idea for a store on the west coast--have Andrew Sean Greer read with Cathleen Shine for a New York night. Folks can choose to come dressed as one of the Village People, or perhaps Auntie Mame), and I should also note that this is the second book in the last few months I've read with a partial Wichita setting. You know the other one, right? It's The Testing.

Louise Brooks, while important to the plot, is really the framing device for the story. It's really about Cora Carlisle, the Wichita matron (she's only 36, but she's so proper!) who agrees to accompany Brooks (who is 15) to New York for dance classes with the legendary Denishawn company. Everyone is rather surprised, but with her sons away from the summer, there's really not much for her to do in town, and her husband, surprisingly, doesn't put up a fuss. I don't want to give away too many secrets here, but I think I can say up front that Cora isn't exactly who people think she is. She actually came to Kansas on an orphan train, sent to the midwest by the nuns at a New York orphanage, and this trip East is Cora's plan to find out more about her family.

Things don't go exactly the way she hopes, but both Cora and Louise's lives are changed forever by this trip. Moriarty (photo credit Tracy Rasmussen) structures the book as this summer trip, punctuated with incidents from Cora's past, and folowed by a trajectory that picks up speed afterwards, like getting on a freeway with limited exits. And I should also say that this would also be a good book to read with Andrew Sean Greer's The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, not just for placiness, but also for several common themes.

I'm still trying to decide whether I loved or hated that Moriarty zipped ahead early on in the narrative to spell out what I consider one of the main themes of the book. "To someone who grows up by the stockyards, that smell just smells like the air. You don't know what a younger person might someday think of you, and whatever stench we still breathe in without noticing." I'm going to try to remember this in the future when I'm feeling a little holier than thou.

The rest of the post has a number of spoilers. I would suggest you stop reading here if you plan to read The Chaperone. Bookmark us and come back to the post later.

So what did the book club think of The Chaperone? Most of us liked it, agreeing that Moriarty is a good storyteller. There was alot of enthusiasm for Cora's growth as a character, and it certainly led to several interesting conversations, particularly on that subject of changing moral codes. I think we all agreed that Cora's interaction with her birth mother (that might be a spoiler) is one of the strongest parts of the book, as is her eventual friendship with Ray (definitely a spoiler).

We had some interesting things to say about this stockyards idea. What are some things we take for granted now which might one day be considered heinous? Eating meat? S. chimed in, "I hope so." What might be considered repulsive now which might be acceptable in the future? We seem to be going in one direction with homosexuality and another with abortion. And look at the prejudice against Catholics that was commonplace in Moriarty's story. Times change. There may be a future where we are back to being okay with polygamy, or as was true in some cultures, some forms of adult incest such as adult siblings. I am not judging here, and certainly not moralizing. I'm just saying that this stockyards thing really rings true from a historical perspective.

One of the tricks about writing historical fiction is how much research to do, and what to do with it afterwards. While many readers are hankering for a lot of factual info surrounding the story, others feel that too much factualizing can get in the way of the story. Several times Moriarty pulled back from the narrative to contemplate the times, such as when Cora and Louise went to see the show "Shuffle Along." It will be interesting to read Ragtime next month, as Doctorow is well known for a very different approach to historical fiction. S. noted that this has sometimes gotten Doctorow in trouble. We'll save that discussion for next month.

Conversely, N. sometimes felt like the modern language of the story got in the way, particularly in dialogue. I argued that too much period dialect can sometimes come across as stilted. You need a balance. "Fine, fine," N. replied. 

Another theme that resonated with several attendees was Moriarty's look at how to be a mother. Both Cora and Louise didn't really have mother figures. Cora in particular lost several moms, and yet each of them learned to nurture. Cora not only raised two boys, but also Greta (spoiler) while Louise took care of her younger siblings when her mom could not.

There was some heated discussion over the last part of the book. Was it the final part of the narrative or did the book really end earlier? G., who works with a lot of seniors, found it quite rich and appealing, but other attendees thought the book really ended (spoiler, spoiler) when Cora inspired Louise to leave Wichita once and for all. I'm pretty sure Moriarty wanted to see the characters into old age. She clearly loved both of them and it was important to her to have this closure. However, I wonder if she couldn't have structured the book with more flash forwards (Someone, the upcoming Alice McDermott novel, does this particularly effectively) to have the book end on that powerful scene that gave the story a thematic arc and an elegant symmetry. On the other hand, what's wrong with a long coda?

Perhaps it's thought that fracturing the narrative might hurt a book's commercial potential, but I think in the age of jump cuts and cable mini series and lots of popular books similarly jumbled narratives, I don't know if that should be an issue.

As I mentioned before, we're staying with historical New York for our next in-store lit group pick. It's E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, and we're reading it in conjunction with the Milwaukee Rep production that opens September 17. Joining us for the second half of the discussion will be two folks from the rep, our marketing friend Caitlin and someone from the artistic staff, yet to be determined.

Don't forget, due to Labor Day, the Ragtime discussion will be on Tuesday, September 3, 7 pm. And yes, it's right here at Boswell.

No comments: