If you like psychological novels, Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming fills the bill nicely. The final nominee in The Best First Novel category for the Edgar Awards (Mystery Writers of America) delivers on what the other nominees fail to offer, a believable flawed character. (There is one more book in the category that I’m taking an X on: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Thirty pages in I found the book so turgid I couldn’t continue.)

Garland, Tennessee is the setting for young Grace’s adolescence and her step into young adulthood. She is best friends with Riley Graham, a boy she loves more than herself. She is besotted and glued to him–and he brings her a bonus she doesn’t initially understand: he comes from a loving home. His parents treat Grace as their own daughter, a longing she doesn’t recognize as unfulfilled until Mrs. Graham fills it. Grace becomes a permanent fixture in their home, even garnering a bedroom prepared for her by Mrs. G.

As Grace, Riley and Alls (Riley’s best friend) near high school graduation, Grace makes the difficult choice to go out of state to college to pursue her art degree, while the two boys stay in Garland. She and Riley secretly marry before she leaves (“They’d married because marriage had seemed final, as though it would protect her, protect them.”) But after only a couple of months in New York, Grace returns to Garland at Thanksgiving and doesn’t return to college. She’s unable to be apart from Riley. (“He had a life without her, but she had never made one without him.”)

The three friends (with the addition of Greg, another friend) rent their own place and try to make a go of it, but money is tight and jobs scarce. While touring a local estate turned museum, Grace steals a small antique and is emboldened to up the ante in order to make some money–the boys join in. When they try for a larger haul, including a valuable painting, the boys are caught but Grace escapes with the painting and flees to France. The boys go to prison for three years.

During her time in France, Grace takes on  an alias and works in a studio refurbishing damaged art and jewelry, waiting in fear that Riley will find her. What transpires is the heart of Grace’s “unbecoming.” She fights herself (“…smacking her own hand back when it wanted, so often, what was not hers.”) and her growing awareness that Riley isn’t the only man out there (“This was what happened when your heart wanted two things it could not have together: You lost them both. Everyone knew that.”). Grace struggles with the strictures society places on women, and in pairing with Alls, eventually becomes who she really is (“You need one person who knows you,” she said. “Just one person you can’t fool, even when you fool yourself.”)

Rebecca Scherm provides us with a novel with depth, characters we think we know until they do something surprising, and a story about the subtle struggles women deal with when their behavior is considered “unbecoming.” Grace takes a different road, “unbecomes” the good girl and shows what women are capable of, even though it’s not “pretty.” On a scale of  one to ten, I rate this book an eight and is my choice for winner of the Best First Novel Category.

Advertisements