Book Review: Unbecoming: A Novel

Renee Chavez
5 min read
Unbecoming: A Novel
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In an age when identity is often a carefully constructed thing that is pieced together with Instagram pics, Facebook check-ins, who you know and where you live, it can be difficult to find the real you. That old adage “Be yourself” is fine and dandy but in Rebecca Sherm’s first novel, Unbecoming, the question is asked, what wouldn’t you do with no one watching? “Whom … [is] goodness for, when you … [are] all alone?” It’s so simple to say people are good or bad, but what does “good” even mean and what happens when you have to face yourself with brutal honesty and see yourself for what you really are?

Unbecoming tells the tale of Grace, an antiques restoration expert in Paris. She has no friends or lovers, following the same routine every week but her monotone existence is not quite what it seems. Every morning she reads an American newspaper, searching for news about two young men, sentenced to jail for the robbery of an old estate in Garland, Tenn. As their release date approaches, she traces the path that led to her solitary and secretive life, every step haunted by the fact that her past will eventually find her.

Scherm delicately spins her tale, bouncing between memories and the present, a dirty orange house in the South and a shadowy, treasure-filled basement in Paris. The structure is a heist gone wrong but the heart of the story is a questioning of love and identity. As Grace remembers her childhood, teen years, college and her escape to Europe, it’s really a character study of how people—particularly young people—change, casting off old personalities, trying on new ones and coming full circle to realize that while experiences may shape you, at the core you are as you have always been and will have to face yourself when you have nothing left and nowhere to hide. The author suggests that individual natures do not change; people can ignore it and fake it, but the lies you tell yourself will eventually crumble because you can’t escape yourself. In the immortal worlds of Buckaroo Banzai, “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Scherm peels away the layers of the boring old “good girl” trope, illuminating the desires, vices, history and thought processes of such a character. She queries why people are good and how a bad person can love and whether they deserve that love in return. And what is love really—knowing someone’s secrets, desires and the absolute worst things they’ve done and still wanting them? Is it the safely comfortable or the unknown darkness that may hold an outline of your own reflection?
Unbecoming seems to suggest that the word “deserve” has nothing to do with it, but that truth is imperative in both relationships and the understanding of oneself.

The details of the antique world are well researched and certain characters leap off the page, letting the reader peek under the skin at the inner workings of literary stereotypes such as “good girls” who reveal themselves to be complex and three dimensional. However others fall short, revealing themselves to be just what you thought they were. This is a tale of bad apples and “nice” characters just don’t have the depth and grit in comparison. On the one hand, nice is just a polite word for boring, but on the other hand, the novel has spent a significant word count exploring the darker layers of the “good girl” so it seems contrary that the “good boy” character falls so flat. You could chalk it up to some characters being simple and straightforward but that would be undermining the foundation of the entire novel: that, to varying degrees, no one is exactly who they present themselves as, and even jocks, good kids and criminals have intricate inner lives.

At face value,
Unbecoming is a bildungsroman with thievery, young love, antiques and betrayal. Hollywood could probably even mash it into a square rom com—but they’d be entirely missing the 24 hours after you finish the book when certain lines ring through your skull like bells. Abstract concepts like identity, acceptance and truth flash behind your eyes while you wonder if maybe they aren’t exactly what you thought they were. Honesty may be the best policy but being deeply, brutally veracious when standing face to face with your own reflection is the hardest thing anyone—fictional or real—can do.

But once you fully own that person in the mirror, just imagine what you’d be capable of. Your goodness or badness would be yours alone, unaffected by the gaze of others; natural and unafraid.
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