Review: Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm


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.

Unbecoming is an intricately plotted and psychologically nuanced heist novel that turns on suspense and slippery identity. With echoes of Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, Rebecca Scherm’s mesmerizing debut is sure to entrance fans of Gillian Flynn, Marisha Pessl, and Donna Tartt.


So the Unbecoming details the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of a girl following a failed heist. Shame that I’m not one for a heist novel because the story’s founding ideas are solid; its flashy plot, however, is not.

What we have is a love story. Grace has a childhood sweetheart whom she intends to love forever until her growing up reveals different, contradictory intentions. She’s faced with a question I ask myself a lot lately: at what age can we finally assume that the person we are is mostly the person we are going to be? And whose decision is it? That is, who decides who we are going to be? Us? Someone else? The blind, unfeeling universe?

Grace learns that when whoever that whomever is makes his decision, it’s impossible to bridge the gap. Gone are the days of one leg firmly sunk in the sands of childhood, the other leg tentatively stepping toward adulthood; Grace is pushed along whether she likes it or not. She tries, like any normal human being, to fight what she’s becoming. And that’s where we get the heist, the much touted thriller element crying out to prospective readers on the back cover. That’s also where the story begins to fail. Once Grace’s largely plotless but entirely typical personal metamorphosis disappears under piles of blueprints, printouts from art auction house websites, and million dollar paintings, the story moves too quickly and loses itself. In life climaxes tend to happen quickly; in books climaxes must unwind slowly and carefully or else the reader’s patience is only briefly, perfunctorily rewarded.

The crazy fast plot befuddles character motivations. Where Grace was once recognizable, indeed pitiable, she is now confusing, unrealistic, and unsympathetic. Author Rebecca Scherm tries to say some great things in Unbecoming, but her choice to pursue a commercial thriller plot foils her attempt. Grace’s love and growing up are justifiably convoluted; unfortunately the heist plot is too.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: Marie-Antoinette by Stefan Zweig


Life at the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette has long captivated readers, drawn by accounts of the intrigues and pageantry that came to such a sudden and unexpected end. Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette is a dramatic account of the guillotine’s most famous victim, from the time when as a fourteen-year-old she took Versailles by storm, to her frustrations with her aloof husband, her passionate love affair with the Swedish Count von Fersen, and ultimately to the chaos of the French Revolution and the savagery of the Terror. An impassioned narrative, Zweig’s biography focuses on the human emotions of the participants and victims of the French Revolution, making it both an engrossingly compelling read and a sweeping and informative history.


What is the sum of a life? The manner in which an individual toiled away the majority of her living hours, the way history chooses to remember her, or how she approaches her final days, trying to live while knowing all that awaits her is death? In evaluating the sum of Marie-Antoinette’s life, the answer to this question is critical. Her rich story has been combed over by many a magnifying glass both during and after her reign as Queen of France, and it’s so full of anomalies that more than two centuries later, it’s still impossible to fully appreciate this historical figure, icon of an era, both vixen and victim. Stefan Zweig, however, in this seminal biography, does his best. In a way he seems to acknowledge the impossibility of it by noting the existence of several distinct Marie-Antoinette’s, one for each distinct epoch of history she occupied in her abridged life of 37 years.

He begins with Marie-Antoinette’s voyage to France at the age of 14 to unite the feuding Bourbon and Habsburg crowns. Married to the impotent, indecisive, and altogether unroyal dauphin—soon-to-be Louis XVI, who will keep the most hilarious personal journal of all-time: his entry on July 14, 1789, the day the Parisians take the Bastille and kick off the Revolution reads, “Rien,” that is, “Nothing”—Marie-Antoinette tries to lose herself in a world of superficiality. Gambling, dances, dresses, and theatre occupy her first decade in France. She is the symbol of the era of rococo, the brilliant zenith of an age of luxury and carelessness birthed by Louis XIV. From Versailles she idles away her days, much to the chagrin of her mother, Empress Marie-Thérèse of Austria, who pleads her daughter for political seriousness. Marie-Antoinette responds, “Que me veut-elle? J’ai peur de m’ennuyer,” her words a motto for the era (“What does she want from me? I’m scared of being bored.”).

But the tableau darkens. For Marie-Antoinette, home, that is, Versailles, will soon become a second-rate palace in Paris, which will become a guarded tower in prison, which will become a single jail cell, which will become an unmarked grave. She doesn’t know it, but we and Stefan Zweig do, which makes her various inadequacies in the years leading to the Revolution, evinced in fantastically entertaining affairs like “L’affaire du collier,” where she’s blamed for the theft of a diamond necklace, so vexing. A girl who does everything to eschew seriousness will be killed for it. And we read on…

Finally, Marie-Antoinette realizes her mistakes and, late in the game, seems ready to play. The rules have changed, however. Blood and terror rule in Paris. The Queen of France is now “Madame Déficit.” It’s even a greater shame, then, that right when Marie-Antoinette finds herself a meaningful life with two children and a Swedish lover, her life is certainly over.

Zweig details this extreme love story and the incredible inner strength Marie-Antoinette demonstrates until her final step on the platform of the guillotine with extraordinary psychological and personal detail. Unlike other biographers, Zweig does not content himself in reciting facts; he is there to unpack and repackage this ill-fated queen’s very essence. His approach is somewhat suspect, based both on personal correspondence discovered in the Austrian archives and the records of her Swedish lover and the Freudian insights popular in Zweig’s time. But it’s so carefully researched, so lovingly researched, that it feels infallible.

Lately I’ve been wondering where humans find strength to survive in trying times. Where Marie-Antoinette found hers is a mystery: probably a combination between love for her family and friends and an ingrained, inborn belief that she was divinely royal. Has there ever been such a life? Such a magnificent story? Here Zweig recounts the life of a relic, the last and most gleaming example of an era, left to rot, headless, in an unmarked grave. But what Marie-Antoinette gives us, those who ponder her fate centuries later, is the possibility to remember her, marvel over her, and adopt some of the fortitude and wisdom with which she faced her final days.

5 out of 5 stars