UnbecomingUnbecoming by Rebecca Scherm
My rating: 3/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne Star 3.5

this book is a little cocktail mix of Gone Girl and The Goldfinch with a little garnish of The Talented Mr. Ripley. but it lacks the sociopathic oomph of gg or ripley and, well, it’s not written by donna tartt. but despite the snouts of influence poking up here and there, it has things that are all its own, and it’s a good read for those original elements, even if the ones i appreciated most were details about the character and not necessarily things that were driving the plot.

but yes – plot. this is about a woman in her early twenties named grace from smalltown tennessee who is hiding out in france under the assumed name of julie, working as a restorer of jewelry and other trinkets for a shady small company and living in fear that her past will catch up with her. because grace is herself a bit shady. three years earlier, she masterminded an art heist back home that landed two of her friends in jail, while she got off scot-free. today is the day that they are being paroled, and she has no idea what happens to her now that they are free. one of these “friends” is riley – a boy she has been in a relationship with since she was twelve years old, and had secretly married before the heist. the other is alls, for whom she harbors complicated and reciprocated romantic feelings. and yet, even before they were both caught, tried, and imprisoned, she has had no contact with either of them, running off to another country with one of the stolen paintings, feigning innocence and relying on her strengths of lying and self-deception to get by.

the story is split between julie-in-france and grace-that-was. the grace storyline is the more interesting one, to me, because we see how she became what she is, and the coming-of-age story is much more relatable than the criminal-on-the-lam.

yes, there are comparisons to Gone Girl, but amy dunne would pick her teeth with this girl. the comparisons begin and end with a character who has an adaptable personality, who can become who she needs to appear to be in order to get what she wants. and despite grace’s childhood lies and casual theft, there’s still something endearing and vulnerable to her, because what she wants is love and family.

her family life isn’t terrible, but after a rocky start where her parents separated and she was shuffled about, they reunited and suddenly she had baby twin brothers, upon whom her parents lavished all their affection. grace assumes that her parents love her less than her brothers because she has bad thoughts, bad impulses.

It wasn’t Grace’s fault that she was a bad apple. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but it did explain a lot of her feelings, her secret thoughts. Being rotten was like being poor, but in your heart. Nothing to be done. You get what you get and you don’t get upset.

largely unsupervised, grace met riley graham when she was in the sixth grade and fell in love with him and his family, particularly with riley’s mother. the grahams are well-off, educated, cultured, and very glamorous to grace. riley has three older brothers, and their house is full of noise, commotion, affection – everything grace wants. so she watches, and she learns, and she insinuates herself into the family, through the doorway of riley, and becomes the daughter mrs. riley always wanted.

she struggles to reinvent herself because she doesn’t want the grahams to see her for what she feels she is – a bad girl.

You could be bad and still be a good girl, if you tried hard enough. She hadn’t tried hard enough before.

but now there is incentive to try.

Riley made it easy for Grace to be good…The Grahams had given her a chance, and she was eager to show them that she could be worthy of their love. They treated Grace as if she belonged to them, and so did Riley, and she devoted herself to earning her keep. She left her frantic, lonely childhood behind to become the Grahams’ daughter and Riley’s dream girl, silky haired and shyly smiling. She knew to go wherever she was wanted.

she loses her virginity to riley when she is thirteen and moves in with the grahams at sixteen. and while she loves riley in her own way, it comes from a place of relief; love as rescue: She couldn’t believe her luck that Riley wanted her, but she was grateful, and she loved him for it.

but her real love is for mrs. graham. not in a sexual way, but in an equally desperate and hungering way. to be her daughter, to be her. she tries on mrs. graham’s clothes and makeup and pretends to be her in the mirror.

She sometimes fantasized a whole childhood as one of them – Grace Graham, the daughter Mrs. Graham had wanted – though she couldn’t tell Riley this without making it sound as though she wished she were his sister.

and all of this is encouraged by riley’s family. their eventual marriage is a foregone conclusion, and they treat her like an adopted daughter – mr. graham calls grace “your girl” to his wife, and mrs. graham takes grace to buy her first bra, watches old movies curled up on the couch with her, and has her try on her own wedding dress, while she clutched at Grace like a long-awaited gift.

and for this, grace will become what is expected of a daughter of the illustrious grahams.

They might not have been able to change their natures, but she could hide hers. She would have to.

and she will become what riley expects, as well.

Later, when his friends had gone home, he told her that she’d embarrassed him. He framed his argument generously: “Quit trying to be a guy,” he said. “You don’t have to fake it. Just be yourself.”

She wasn’t faking it, she started to explain. She was just –

“But I don’t like you like that,” he said.

Just-be-yourself had its limits. She adapted to his vision. She liked that girl more than she had ever liked herself before anyway, so that was the self she became.

she loves and admires riley, supports his artistic temperament and takes comfort in their shared history. she knows everything about him and she allows herself to be shadowed by him, where she can hide out in the role of that famous gone girl “cool girl.”

and then she goes to new york. and everything changes.

i realize i am going on and on and on here, so i will try to be brief, even though this is the most interesting part, to me. in new york, she is exposed to entirely new experiences that change her forever. most importantly, she finds that she is not so unusual in pretending to be someone she isn’t. pasts are whitewashed, pretensions are accepted without question, and everything’s about surface presentation. she learns the importance of clothing as camouflage, as armor. in addition to this, she discovers that some people are not only unashamed of their dark sides and impulses, but celebrate them, turning them into art. she is also exposed to true wealth.

she studies art history and gets a job as an art appraiser’s assistant. she lies about her past, saying that riley is studying at the sorbonne and that his mother is dying of breast cancer. she reinvents herself once again, transforming into a knowledgeable participant in the art scene and soaking it all in like a sponge. she still loves riley, but she begins to come into her own, no longer interested in hiding behind his familiar charisma. when she returns home for thanksgiving, she becomes that insufferable college student returning to what she sees as her quaint, provincial hometown. she criticizes riley’s art as mere craftsmanship, technically competent, but lacking in vision. she spouts baudrillard at him, trying to inspire him into becoming edgy and important.

grace’s transition in new york makes me wince, but it is perfectly rendered.

lots more stuff happens after this, but i’ve gone on way too long already. there’s homecoming and heist and aftermath, romantic entanglements, grace getting herself into increasingly horrible situations which she endures, dead-eyed, and a pretty satisfying little fillip of a coda.

as a character study, this is really successful. i was much less interested in the heist itself (although it was very clever) and everything that happened once she became julie. but this is an author i will definitely keep an eye on, because the things she does well she does very very well, and i think she has a lot more in her.

read my reviews on goodreads

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