By Jenny Downham
David Fickling Books, 2016
Katie has always been the good, studious, reliable daughter that her mother, Caroline, knows she can count on. When Caroline’s own mother, Mary, turns up with Alzheimer’s, a lifetime of rebellion, passion, and loss spilling disjointedly out of her memory, and no one else to look after her, Katie discovers that there’s a lot Caroline hasn’t told her about their family, and that goodness as she’s always known it may not be her only option.
The weakest point is the overexplaining of the title. The word “unbecoming” is dropped early in its typical, sinister usage, essentially meaning something outside of what a woman is expected to be. The secondary meaning within the context of the book, a deconstruction of what a person has become, is clear enough by the end without Katie laying it out for the reader as she does.
Katie’s romantic subplot is also a little harlequin-esque melodramatic. Her love interest, Simona, gets a bit of a pass for being a lesbian in a highly repressive environment; she’s realistically had to develop a thick shell of one kind or another, and hers takes the form of extreme boldness to cover how much she’s secretly bothered by what people think of her, but if the same scenes were to take place between a straight couple without that factor in play, it would be difficult not to laugh at some of the over-the-top dialogue and mood swings.
The cover promises a family drama about three women, but it’s really about four. Actually, it’s about more than that, but within the family in question, it’s about two sisters, the “good” one, Pat, and the “wild” one, Mary. It’s about Caroline, the baby trapped between the two of them, and Katie, the granddaughter, isolated from the sordid family history and from any examples of how to grow into anything but the next version of her paranoid, joyless mother.
Unbecoming is a sharp, sad, and complex exploration of the choice set before all four of them – one that hasn’t changed in their three generations or in the countless more before – whether to do what’s expected of them, or to pursue what they want, and the price that comes with each.
Every one of the four is flawed, and every one of the four is pitiable, even Pat, who’s dead before the story begins. No one gets off easy, and no one is innocent. Whether by accident or by design, by selfishness or by compliance, they all hurt one another and themselves.
Though the story proposes no answer to how to be a good and happy woman, mother, sister, or daughter, the overall tone is hopeful, celebrating courage, self-expression, and understanding between the three remaining living women, in spite of their radically different strategies when faced with the same impossible conundrum.
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