Stunning and unpredictable, Unbecoming is a novel that inhabits the expectations of small-town America in Garland, Tennessee, and the more sophisticated and challenging environs of bourgeois European countries, where a woman earns a living while preserving her anonymity, unnoticed and unimportant. A journey begun innocently with a young girl’s first crush--and acceptance by a family utterly unlike her own--contains the seeds of metamorphosis, small dreams exchanged for the expansive bounty of the wider world, the destruction of security so gradual as to be unrecognizable.
Having never felt wanted by her parents, especially when twin boys absorb the limited affection in the household, Grace is drawn to the popular, gregarious Riley Graham, when he chooses her as his girlfriend. Even at twelve, she is a girl with an appetite for love she fears will never be quenched, unconsciously covetous of the surety of others, even Riley, who rests so easily in the circle of family. By the time they are nearing college, still devoted to one another, Grace considers herself entitled to claim to the Grahams, wanting always to please them: “She was never as afraid of getting hurt as she was having to look into the eyes of those she’d already hurt.”
Readily accepted into the threesome of best friends--Riley, Allston and Greg--when the boys rent a house to share during their college years, it isn’t until Grace goes to school in New York that she becomes more conscious of the discrepancies between wealth and poverty, grateful that her future is assured. She loves her part-time job working as an appraiser of fine art, loves the exposure to precious antiques and collectibles. Riley is expected to join her later in New York when Grace makes a critical misstep, takes a bite of the apple, unleashing the snake into her personal Garden of Eden.
Three years later, Grace, now named Julie, is in Paris, repairing antiques in a basement workshop. Riley and Allston
have just been released after three years in prison for the robbery of a local historical estate. Grace’s meticulously groomed future has gone up in smoke, no communication with Riley since she left for Prague with a stolen painting rolled into her suitcase. The journey from twelve-year-old girl enfolded in the loving embrace of the Graham family to a meager existence in a Paris basement is one fraught with self-deception, desperation, and the need to fashion truth from a myriad of small lies. Grace has perfected a particular skill:
how to “grow a lie and cultivate it like a houseplant.”
In one of the most unusual and creative novels this year, Scherm narrates the bifurcated existence of small-town Grace, craving the innate luxuries of entitlement, never trusting her ability to belong, content to fit quietly into the niche created by her boyfriend’s love and easy assumption of their future togetherness. Julie labors under the burden of discovery as a fraud, her unworthiness and self-image tangled in a web of lies. The two worlds are an ocean apart, both inhabited by the same woman, “both the good and the bad girl,” finally unable to tell the two apart. Her secrets unravel one by one, truth forced by circumstances, self-sabotage stripping away the opportunity to belong, the sticky fingers of greed undoing even the most determined efforts. What is the real nature of love, the cost of its possession? Stripped of pretense, a creature of her own design, the only question whether the past might intrude with a knock on her third-floor bedroom door.