Downham, Jenny. Unbecoming. New York: Scholastic, 2016.

A blue cover with three women's faces in a vertical line; the faces are expressionless with beautiful red hair.

In this ambitious and beautifully written novel, three women—a grandmother, a mother, and a teenage daughter—struggle with secrets and relationships. Katie is a pariah at school because she kissed her best friend, who ousted her from the social circle by telling people that the kiss was nonconsensual. Caroline, Katie’s mother, is exhausted from helicopter-parenting her disabled child and caring for her estranged mother while waiting for a dementia care facility to have a bed available. Mary, Katie’s grandmother, is suddenly thrust into their lives when her partner dies; she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and desperately tries to remember what happened between her and her daughter.

Unbecoming is a lovely, lyrical, poignant book. Character development is well-paced, with personalities and private ordeals revealed slowly through behavior and dialog rather than being “told” right up front. Katie is a warm and caring granddaughter. I loved how she got to know her grandmother and tried her best to help her remember her life by putting photographs on the wall and letting her direct their daily walks. Katie’s anguish at losing her best friend was palpable. She strives to fit in with the social group and struggles first with trying not to be gay and then with figuring out how to come out.

Mary is a fiery, determined, confident woman. Her early life is uncovered through flashbacks that show her adolescence as a flirtatious girl who knows what she wants; a young adult with strong ambition who must make an incredibly difficult decision; and a working adult who pines over that decision. As an elder, her memories slip away, leaving her unable to reconnect with her daughter the way she wants. Katie helps her by writing down the memories she shares in a notebook.

Caroline is a conflicted and busy working mother. Her son has a developmental disability which is never named but reads a lot like autism to me. She is constantly concerned that he will get hurt or lost and hovers protectively over him. She parentifies Katie, confiding in her about her troubles and discouraging her from normal teenage behaviors, putting her in the position of helping take care of her brother. This character was less developed; we see her mostly through Katie’s eyes. I would have liked to know Caroline’s internal dialog to get a better sense of her dreams and challenges.

I had trouble putting this book down; it’s superb literary fiction. In fact, I was surprised that it’s labeled as YA. I think Unbecoming is well suited for sensitive high school and adult readers who enjoy character-driven stories. I recommend it for all public libraries and think it has a place in academic fiction collections, too.

Unbecoming won a 2017 Stonewall Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Fiction, was on the 2017 Rainbow Project Book List, and received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

About Charlie McNabb

Archivist, Folklorist, and Legend Tripper
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