Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm
Pub. Date: January 22, 2015
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Viking!!)
Summary: On the grubby outskirts of Paris, Grace restores bric-a-brac, mends teapots, re-sets gems. She calls herself Julie, says she’s from California, and slips back to a rented room at night. Regularly, furtively, she checks the hometown paper on the Internet. Home is Garland, Tennessee, and there, two young men have just been paroled. One, she married; the other, she’s in love with. Both were jailed for a crime that Grace herself planned in exacting detail. The heist went bad—but not before she was on a plane to Prague with a stolen canvas rolled in her bag. And so, in Paris, begins a cat-and-mouse waiting game as Grace’s web of deception and lies unravels—and she becomes another young woman entirely.
Genre: Adult, Mystery/Suspense, Contemporary
Recommended for: readers who enjoy unreliable narrators and their mystery with a psychological bent, fans of art/heist novels
It’s no secret that I love me some art novels. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Impressionism or Picasso, but there’s something about art novels that draws me in. Back in 2012, B. A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger kickstarted my new obsession and its fictional backbone taken from the very real Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft even made it to one of my History 101 posts! So, basically what I’m trying to say is if you want me to fall in love with your book, throw in a painting.
Naturally when I heard of Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming my eyes lit up. A botched heist, Paris, comparisons to Gillian Flynn and Donna Tartt, and it’s published by Viking? Um yes please. Hopefully Matt didn’t install any hidden cameras in our house because the jig I did when this book showed up at my door would be about five years’ worth of embarrassment.
Twenty-two-year-old Julie is living a quiet life in Paris. By day she restores broken pottery and repairs jewelry. At the end of the day she heads back to her rented bedroom and if anyone were to ever ask, she would say she’s from California. In reality, Julie is Grace, originally from a tiny town in Tennessee and is currently hiding out, obsessively checking her town’s online newspaper. Three years ago Grace planned out a theft – a semester spent in New York taught her a wealth of knowledge about antiques and what’s valuable. Garland, Tennessee’s local tourist attraction is an old estate and in Grace’s eyes, a quick way to strike it rich.
Although Grace ultimately backed out, her co-conspirators went through with the plan and were ultimately caught. Her nightly online searches revealed that two of the men were paroled: her husband and the man she’s in love with. Despite her precautions and careful steps, Grace still jumps at every sound, avoids making eye contact with strangers. It’s not possible they would come looking for her…right?
Unbecoming is essentially split into two parts: Julie’s story in the present day and Grace’s from a few years prior and is more of a character study than a thrilling ride. Grace’s home life wasn’t the best – her parents were split the majority of her childhood only to reunite and have children they devoted more attention to. One day at school she met Riley, a sweet boy from a well-to-do family and the moment she went to their house for dinner she knew she found her home. From the time she was twelve she was permanently attached to Riley (losing her virginity at thirteen, moving in at sixteen) and Mrs. Graham took Grace under her wing. She treated Grace like the daughter she always wanted, watching old movies on the couch together, and was the one to buy Grace her first bra. Before Grace left for college, she and Riley secretly married, promising that one day they would have a big wedding – Mrs. Graham would be heartbroken if she knew she missed out.
Eventually her love for Riley changes into a love of what he has: a stable, loving home. Alls, however, comes from the wrong side of the tracks as well and understands Grace. Where she becomes the Grace Riley wants her to be, she’s able to be herself around Alls. A brief tryst while in New York connects these three and begins their downward spiral.
A week or so before the heist, Grace flees the country and it’s there that Julie’s story begins. Julie has perfected the art of lying low. She diligently goes about her job (however shady the owner might be) and keeps her list of friends to a bare minimum. After opening up to a coworker, Hanna, Julie discovers the two aren’t all that different. Hanna has a past as well, one that’s a bit more tarnished than Julie’s and as her trust builds, Julie allows Hanna to hear her story.
I loved the idea of this one more than its execution I think. I suppose my expectations were far too high (in my mind I had pegged this one as being a perfect, flawless novel before I had even started), so any disappointment is entirely my fault. That said, I wanted a little more from Unbecoming. Perhaps if this had been packaged differently, pitched as more of the character study that it was rather than the next Gone Girl I would have been more open to it? To be honest, I’m really not sure how I felt about this one. I certainly enjoyed it and tore through it very quickly, but there was something lacking that I can’t put my finger on.
With blurbs by Kate Atkinson, Tana French, and Karen Joy Fowler, Unbecoming is sure to gain a massive following. It really was an excellent book and hugely fascinating (and Scherm seriously knows her stuff!), but don’t go into this one expecting an action-packed, thrills galore kind of read. I do recommend this one and I highly suggest taking a look at Penguin’s book club kit. Scherm discusses Antiques Roadshow, her own forgeries, and her favorite thiefs. I’m EXTREMELY curious about Sofia Blyumsctein now – she would hide jewels underneath her incredibly long fingernails or get her pet monkey to swallow gems while she distracted jewelers! UM WHAT. There are also cocktail recipes and a Spotify playlist – I swear it’s like they created this kit with me in mind.