I was offered a review copy of Rebbeca Scherm’s novel Unbecoming by Annie Harris, from Viking. At first, I spent a few days thinking whether this was the kind of novel that I would like, but Annie always offers me books that I love, plus, the book was to be released on my birthday. So, I accepted, and I got an advanced review copy of one of the best, most complex and more life-changing novels I have ever read.
‘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.’
Unbecoming is a novel about identity and how love shapes it. But it is also a novel about the role we play in the creation of ourselves, because every day, by little acts we construct a self that we eventually label as ‘us’. The same way that feminism teaches women to un-learn patriarchal ways, norms and expectations, Unbecoming deconstructs what made Grace – the main character – the person that she is.
When we first meet Grace she is living in Paris under the name ‘Julie’. We do not know why or how this Tennessee young woman has ended up restoring antiques in a French basement, but that is part of the process of unbecoming: Grace leads us from the complex process of becoming someone – back in her childhood years in Tennessee – challenging and questioning that identity – and how an education plays a key role on this – and, finally playing an active role to be the woman that she wants to be. No matter what that implies, and no matter if it goes against what she had been fighting for all her life. Because, Unbecoming tells us, changing your mind and letting yourself be changed by it, is something we should cherish.
Reading this novel was, as you can imagine, quite a journey. Scherm has created a poetic, inspiring and thought-provoking novel. Postmodern theories on identities claim we are never fully constructed as subjects, we are never complete, we are constantly evolving, changing and, as a consequence, open to new opportunities and new ideas. Out identities, our ‘selves’ are just a fallacy, and by our daily actions, we can change who/what we are. Grace does exactly this by shaping herself into the girl who her middle-school boyfriend and his family want to meet. But, at what cost?
‘Art was there to scratch at people’s brains, to help ideas find traction in metaphor that they could not when made explicit.’
Unbecoming is also a novel about art . When Grace moves to NYC to study History of Art she discovers a whole new world where she feels comfortable in. She can identify and catalogue items so easily, she even scares herself at the infinite possibilities of her talent. And, even though the art business is described as male-dominated, it also offers a space for women to express themselves. However, because Grace is a Southern, young woman, she is seen as a provincial and naïve newbie to the trade, a supposedly subjected position that she manages to take advantage of.
I adored Unbecoming for many reasons, but the main one is that it, as a young woman, Grace’s story made me question why we are like we are in our twenties. How did our childhood and teenage years shape us? Is our present self simply a consequence of past acts, or are we actively constructing ourselves? How does love – and the lack or need for it – shape what we become? Scherm also makes a great job at exploring and describing places, and spaces. The most vivid one is that of Grace’s hometown in Tennessee. There were times when reading Unbecoming felt as sunny and warm as a Southern evening, and the joy, pain, and fear it describes are worthy of a good, old country song. I could not simply ask for more.
And in case you need further proof, the fantastic Kate Atkinson also loved it:
“Rebecca Scherm’s extraordinarily confident voice and style, this novel’s depth of detail—great characters and a terrifically engaging plot—are a sheer delight to read. There is something very fresh and captivating about this book and best of all I had no idea what was going to happen from one page to the next.” —Kate Atkinson