In Kansas-native Moriarty’s fourth novel (While I’m Falling, 2009, etc.), she imagines the life of the actual Wichita matron who accompanied future silent film star Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922 as a favor to Brooks' parents.
Although Louise Brooks was a larger-than-life personality whose memoir LuLu in Hollywood is held in high critical esteem, she’s given short shrift by Moriarty, whose interest lies in Cora Carlisle. In 1922, 36-year-old Cora faces an empty nest as her twin sons prepare for college. Her lawyer husband, Alan, 12 years her senior, is a wonderful father and a good man, but their marriage is a sexless sham. She has grudgingly accepted and kept secret his (lifelong) homosexual love affair. So Alan is in no position to stop her when she announces that she is escorting Myra Brooks’ 15-year-old daughter to New York City, where the girl has enrolled in dance school. He knows Cora’s real reason for going east. She lived in a Catholic orphanage in Manhattan until she was 7, then was sent to Kansas, where she was raised by a loving farm couple. Now she yearns to learn about her parentage. Louise, precociously sexual as well as beautiful and brainy (Schopenhauer is her favorite author), is a difficult, unlikable charge, but Cora finds time in New York to seek out information. Joseph, the janitor at the orphanage, helps Cora in her research while introducing her to the passion her marriage never offered. With Louise on the road to stardom, Cora returns to Wichita with Joseph, claiming he is her brother—a charade Alan agrees to maintain. Cora seems to represent the history of women’s rights in the 20th century. An early suffragette, she applauds the end of prohibition and champions birth control and racial equality. She also gives Louise good advice during a rocky period in her career.
Unlike the too-infrequently-seen Louise, the fictional characters seem less alive or important than the issues they represent.