Book Review: Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm
At first, I couldn't get a handle on what was happening.
The main character, Grace, is written as a phantom (Not a spoiler)...she is rarely described physically, and the story is written in first person, as Grace, so I found it difficult to place an image of her...which is also kind of part of the story. Our main character wears many masks as she stumbles toward - or away - from who she is.
I also like these "Whydunnits" or "Howdunnits" stories. You know what the imprisoned culprits did, in this case, participated in an unsuccessful estate house heist. But the mystery lies in how and why they got there, and what happens in the aftermath. The main character managed to plan the whole thing - but was in a different country when it went off.
One of the main themes in Unbecoming I found interesting was around love and longing. Main character Grace simultaneously remembers all the things that went wrong in her home town of Garland, Tennessee, and lives her day-to-day ruse as Julie from California, who works in a shady restoration office in Paris.
Throughout this back and forth from present to past, we begin to see how most of the characters very much want something they cannot or do not have, whether through a social, physical, creative or intellectual limitation.This is played out in multiple ways, but I found two of the main character's journeys most compelling.
There is exquisite detail in terms of the antiques, valuables, jewlery and artwork mentioned throughout the story. Grace becomes quite good at valuation, as well as being able to restore things and has the ability to see value in what most would find mundane, like she's always searching for something important.
Scherm goes to great lengths to explain the tiniest piece of jewelry, spending paragraphs detailing how a Van Cleef and Arpels ring would be made, yet, I found many of the characters - who fill every page - to be faceless mysteries. It was frustrating, but fascinating that the people Grace paints most vividly are the ones who ultimately matter the least (Her school mates, her parents, an obnoxious roommmate.), yet the man she loves most is largely hidden from us, as she is from him.
"It's a bezel set, see? You'd have to pry the bezel open all the way around to take the stone out. You cast a cup for the stone out of metal, make the rim too high, and then once the stone is in you have to file the edges down so there's just a shallow lip, and then you push the edges down tight around it. Then you have to burnish them until they're flush and smooth."
You can picture exactly what she means when she describes things, or other people, yet you have no concept of even Grace's own hair color. And I found that to be so compelling, she's meant to be a shadow, she feels like one, acts like one and tries to become one.
I didn't know what to expect when I picked this up, but I would highly recommend it. I couldn't put it down and actually reread the last few chapters four times because the way it ended had such an impact on me.
A very creative first novel from Rebecca Scherm!