Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm is a psychological thriller involving an art heist, a cat-and-mouse waiting game, and a transformation of a small-town girl from Tennessee.
In the seemingly endless parade of novels breathlessly proclaimed as the next Gone Girl (which is a book I adored, for the record), it’s hard not to view each newcomer askance. Granted, Unbecoming isn’t exactly new: published on January 22nd, 2015, it was another of those thrillers that I, weary of imitators, skipped over until it was nominated for an Edgar for “Best First Novel.”
And wow, what a debut! A lot of reviews have described Unbecoming as the story of what happens after the heist goes wrong, but I firmly believe that the heist described in these pages is merely the framework for an elegant, finely wrought portrait of a young woman who, as it happens, finds herself turned, and not altogether unwillingly, into a femme fatale.
Penniless but pretty, Grace is from small-town Tennessee, where she grew up madly in love with golden boy Riley and his perfect family. How she ends up in Paris, France under an assumed identity, restoring artwork, and barely eking out a living, while she obsessively monitors the webpage of her hometown, looking for news of her husband and his best friend—a man she also loves—ahead of their impending release from prison after being incarcerated for a heist she helped plan and execute, is a large part of the excellently written narrative:
She checked in every day without fail, like taking a pill. Just once, and quickly, to get it over with. The compulsion didn’t make any sense, she knew; there was nothing in her life to threaten anymore. She had no relationships to protect, no real career or reputation. And if some malevolent ghost from her past did discover her here in Paris, it wouldn’t be Riley or Alls—it would be police about the painting; or Wyss, the collector or whatever he was, also about the painting; or the thug Wyss had sent to beat her up the first time. But Grace was never as afraid of the police or Wyss as she was of Riley and Alls, which was to say she was never as afraid of getting hurt as she was of having to look into the eyes of those she’d already hurt so much.
The crime itself, and Grace’s many other sins, is woven seamlessly into an exploration of identity, and the longing to be discovered and loved for the imperfect human beings that we all are. Unbecoming goes deep into the background of why Grace is the person that she is, a liar and a thief scrambling to present an “acceptable” facade to the societies that she finds herself in, unbalanced at every turn by new external expectations that have her questioning her true inner self.
It’s a deeply feminist critique of the way that people, and especially women, are raised to please others, to fit certain roles and avoid conflict, and of how this can force a person to act out in the only ways they know how—with small lies and thefts rolling over into larger ones that threaten to destroy everything they hold dear:
She had hoped that if she could just keep the truth inside her, a nicer story than the real one would grow like a seed, taking root and getting stronger, until it grew around the truth and consumed it. The good twin would destroy the evil twin, or something like that. In her fantasy, no one, not even Grace, would be able to tell the difference.
But she had never forgotten the truth. She’d told shoddy lies. The story was pale and underdeveloped and looked like the impostor it was.
As an examination of the “fake it ‘til you make it” philosophy, and the dark side thereof, Unbecoming is an extremely successful, deeply engrossing look at the making of a femme fatale, as well as the consequences of desperation on the human psyche. It also succeeds at being a terrific book about art restoration. I’ve come to the happy conclusion that people who write masterfully and lovingly about art also write meticulously plotted crime novels, and Rebecca Scherm continues in this fine tradition.
And can we talk about that ending? Without going into spoilers, I can safely say that this book has one of the most satisfying endings of a crime novel written from the criminal’s perspective that I’ve read in a long time. It’s rather hard to believe that Unbecoming is Ms. Scherm’s first book, so assuredly is it written, but it’s definitely a strong contender for the Edgar and would be a worthy winner. She’s definitely won a place on my list of must-read authors—not the most rewarding plaudit for this extraordinary book, I know, but no easy achievement either.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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