The Wednesday Review: UNBECOMING by Rebecca Scherm

Here’s the thing about Unbecoming: it was not the book I expected it to be. I ought to  resign myself right now to knowing that any book that comes along comparing itself to Gone Girl will not live up to that claim.

Which is a shame, because that makes it sound like Unbecoming wasn’t a good book. And I found that after I let go of that hope, I had in my hands an engaging story.

Grace is living a lie, restoring not-so-precious antiques in a little basement shop in Paris. She calls herself Julie, tells people she’s from California, and gets paid under the table because she has no work visa. She’s worked there for two years, and the entire time, she’s hid in the lies she’s told, convinced someone from back home will recognize her.

Home is the small town of Garland, Tennessee, a place she monitors from afar with her daily checks of the local paper. She’s waiting for news on the release of two prisoners, and she wonders how much longer she can maintain her deceptions. Because once they’re out, she knows it’s only a matter of time before everything falls apart.

Unbecoming has a familiar pace, the sort of  leisurely stroll you’d expect of a work of literary fiction. Grace has always been a liar, because she’s always wanted to be the version of herself that others want her to be. She’s uncomfortable in her own skin. So when she meets Riley in elementary school, she’ll do anything to be the girl he wants. The more time she spends with him, the less herself she is. The first notable thing she does for herself is deciding to attend college at NYU instead of the local university, and she does it in a moment of panic.

The story switches between Grace’s past and her present, residing mostly in the past for a good three quarters of the book. When Grace tells her co-worker Hanna the first real truth about herself, it breaks a dam, and we get to see everything, from her quiet childhood with parents who didn’t quite know what to do with her to becoming Riley’s girlfriend in middle school to the heist she plans down to the last exacting detail. There’s a whole swath of chapters I could have done without, right in the middle, and they were hard to get through. It’s only toward the end of that chunk do they prove necessary.

It’s a difficult book to review, because one of the major hallmarks of literary fiction – character development – is largely missing. Grace, Riley, Alls (Riley’s best friend), even Hanna, are all shadows slowly coming in to focus. We see them through Grace’s eyes; Alls barely registers as a separate person to her until about halfway through the book. So with Grace as unformed as she is, the lack doesn’t feel so much like one, because she’s struggling to fill in the blanks in herself. Uncovering the many sides to the people around her is beyond her capabilities.

The world of Unbecoming is one giant lie, a ball of yarn that only gets bigger as the pages turn. Because the Grace we meet at the beginning is not the Grace we know at the end, and that’s okay. We don’t need to know who she is to enjoy her story.

Copy of Unbecoming provided by the publisher.


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