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Book Review: Unbecoming

By (February 4, 2015) No Comment

unbecoming coverUnbecoming

Rebecca Scherm

Viking, 2015

Julie, the young American expat living in a Paris suburb and working as an antiques restorer at the beginning of Rebecca Scherm’s ferociously readable debut novel, is outwardly the protagonist of a hundred novels a year: quirky, self-doubting American girl is muddling through her life in Foreign City X when she unexpectedly falls in love with Handsome Foreigner Y only to end up re-connecting with Old Beau From America Z in the book’s second half. In any given year, half those novels will actually be called Unbecoming, and a good proportion of them will feature the same cover as Scherm’s book: bright dots or sigils of some kind superimposed on a faded face.

But the onion-layers of this particular Unbecoming almost immediately begin peeling away, revealing a far more interesting story: Julie is actually Grace, and although she tells her Parisian boss that she’s from California, she’s actually from the small town of Garland, Tennessee, and her reasons for all this subterfuge have nothing to do with benign bourgeois self-reinvention: in a series of very adroitly-handled flashbacks, we quickly learn that Grace is in active flight from her own past.

Three years ago, she stole a valuable painting from the historic Wynne House in Garland and fled the country, taking on a series of alternate identities and eventually ending up in Paris wanting nothing more than to hide in secure anonymity for the rest of her life. This is more of a chance than her accomplices got back in Harland: her childhood love Riley Graham, Riley’s alluring friend Alls, and their ratty sidekick Greg (you can tell he’s ratty because otherwise he, too, would have a cool name) were all arrested for the Wynne House crime. Greg informed on the other two, and now, three years later, Riley and Alls are about to be paroled – and Grace is irrationally certain they’ll come for her.

Unbecoming is therefore two parts love story and two parts crime drama, a formula that’s tricky to pull off well for the simple reason that it’s inherently dumb and thus shouldn’t be pulled off well. Almost invariably in the course of telling such a story, the author – especially a debut author – will tip her hand as to which of the grafted halves has her first affections. Among Scherm’s many remarkable strengths as an author is her ability to craft an even-keeled narrative, however, so Unbecoming hardly feels lopsided in this way. For the supple loveliness of the flashback prose, I might think the love story was the genesis of the plot:

They kissed in the tree and on the rooftops, shortcut around the neighborhood by hopping from eave to eave. They lay out on the asphalt shingles in the summer, their fingers crooked in each other’s waistbands, making out and burning in the sun. They skinny-dipped in the Monahans’ swimming pool when the Monahans went on vacation and paid Riley five dollars a day to take care of their cats. Grace slept at home but otherwise lived at the Grahams’ as best she could. Often their neighbors would forget that she didn’t live there. She babysat their children and patronized their lemonade stands, and everywhere Riley was, she was too.

But then the crime drama kicks in and feels every bit as concentrated:

Without violence, resources, or experience, one could take only unguarded, underappreciated treasure. Silver. Small clocks. Prints that were signed but not numbered. One couldn’t steal them from a museum, with its deep records and security guards, or even a library. Not from someone’s house, where the missing family heirlooms would be wept over. Not from a store. You’d want to take them from somewhere like the Wynne House.

In fact, the story has almost none of the tell-tale signs of a debut effort; in most cases, it’s like the delivery of a full-formed and entirely assured new storyteller in our midst. There are needlessly portentous asides from time to time (at one point, while assessing a much-damaged and often-repaired 1750 teapot, Grace wonders what it meant to its owners – “a burdensome inheritance? The cracked hopes of their marriage embodied in an ugly wedding present?” and then Scherm can’t resist stepping out onto stage with the groaner, “There had been a time when a teapot was just a teapot”), but they’re surrounded by a plot that’s shaped with power and elegant simplicity. Our author knows perfectly well that she’s duty-bound to make Grace’s irrational fear – that Riley and Alls will defy their parole, trace her, and then confront her right there in Paris – somehow come about, and the scenes in which she does this will translate with buttery ease into film adaptation this book so genially invites.

Unlike Grace, Unbecoming thus succeeds in both its identities. It’s an intelligent page-turner of a book, and readers hungry for that rarest of hybrids won’t be disappointed.