Unbecoming: A Novel by Rebecca Scherm (New York: Viking Press, 2015.  308 pp)

Rebecca Scherm holds an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan, where she currently teaches. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesJezebel, Subtropics, The Hairpin, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Fiction Writers Review.

Fraud

The art world has so often been plagued with subtle intricacies which to the average viewer are unnoticeable. Pen strokes, color palettes and the like tell the authoritative art expert whether or not a piece is a fake. So, too, can it be with people.

Rebecca Scherm’s debut novel Unbecoming is the story of Julie from California. Or, is it Grace from Garland, Tennessee? Grace is a world class fraud. She is constantly in the process of un-becoming the person she had become.

“The first lie Grace had told Hanna was her name. ‘Bonjour, je m’appelle Julie,’ Grace had said.  She’d been in Paris for only a month, and her French was still new and stiff.  She’d chosen the name Julie because it was sweet and easy on the French tongue — much more so than Grace was. The best lies were the simplest and made the most sense, in the mind and in the mouth. These lies were the easiest to swallow.”

Becoming and Unbecoming

As an unwanted child, she was passed from one family to another. She eventually finds herself Riley Graham’s girlfriend, and is embraced fully and happily by his family. She assumes the role of surrogate daughter, and perfect girlfriend. At eighteen years of age she leaves her sweet hometown of Garland, Tennessee for Manhattan, specifically NYU, while at the same time secretly marrying Riley. She lands a seedy job with an art appraiser which leads to her dropping out and landing back home.

Once home in Garland, she uses her new skills in the art world to plan an elaborate heist of a local historical museum with Riley and his friends. Much like most things in Grace’s life, the heist goes bad and she flees the scene. Riley doesn’t make it and is caught by the authorities. She flies to Prague with a stolen canvas and gives herself a new name.

Now in Paris, Grace gets the word that Riley is out of prison and is looking for her. Grace’s lies begin to unravel.

Elusive Stylings

While Unbecoming has everything you would want in a novel: a heist, young love, European travel, a bitter husband from prison, and an overall engaging plot, the literary devices that Scherm uses can often be confusing. Scherm seems devoted to flashbacks and flash forwards, which leaves the reader disoriented at times. Perhaps that’s the point. Scherm’s deliberately convoluted style gives further power to Grace’s elusive nature.

The girl who dabbles in self-forgery even before the art world finds her is swept into a mystery of theft, betrayal, and young love. Grace learns that the worst lies are often the ones that we tell ourselves.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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