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.