Read enough young-adult novels and you start to notice that the characters rarely seem to go to school or do chores or get in trouble with their parents (except when the plot requires it, of course). Fictional teenagers are off on their own, having adventures away from home, whether those take place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland or on a cross-country road trip. But YA writer Jenny Downham would rather tell a different kind of story—one where teenagers are stuck firmly within their families and are forced to cope with all the complications that come with them.
“I’m far more interested in what happens when you put teenagers somewhere where they’re boundaried, where they’re not allowed to do stuff,” she says. And certainly, the protagonist of Downham’s novel Unbecoming (Feb. 23) has plenty of boundaries: Katie’s mother expects her to go to school, study for exams, help care for her developmentally challenged brother, and not do much else. But when Katie’s estranged grandmother Mary, who is suffering from dementia, is thrust into their care, the family’s carefully planned routine is upended.
The story was inspired in part by Downham’s childhood experience of her grandmother coming to stay for a few weeks while she recovered from a stroke. “Everything about our house and the dynamics between family members changed because she was there,” Downham says. Not only did Downham have to give up her bedroom, but her mother expected her to take on new tasks and responsibilities. She found it all rather trying at the time.
Now, she realizes how difficult the situation must have been for her mother. Just as she was writing the book, Downham’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she was thrust into the caregiver role, attempting to balance the needs of her ailing mother with those of her teenage children. “You come home knackered and irritable, and in a way, you don’t give anyone the best of yourself,” she says.
As Downham struggled to meet everyone’s demands, writing Mary’s story became a sort of therapy. “I could be with my mum and it could be really difficult, I could have a really horrible day,” she says. “And then I’d get home and I’d imagine being somebody with Alzheimer’s and I kind of understood her better.”
But ultimately, it’s Katie’s mother, Caroline, whose experiences most closely mirror Downham’s: she has to corral the confused Mary and come to terms with Katie’s first pushes toward adult independence. To the teenage Katie and free-spirited Mary, she comes off as a humorless scold, but Downham has found that many readers actually relate to Caroline—it turned out that “sandwich caring,” as it’s called, is both increasingly common and uniquely demanding.
While Caroline attempts to take care of everyone and live up to an ideal standard of motherhood, Katie struggles with a very different set of expectations: those for teenage girls. Downham points out that our society still sets impossible standards for young women—“we want you to be sexy but not slutty, and we want you to be brainy but not cleverer than the boys”—which many young women, Katie included, end up internalizing.
Unbecoming’s central narrative is the story of Katie rejecting those expectations and embracing her own dreams and desires, but Downham tries to give all of her characters interesting emotional arcs. As a former actress, her final judgment of a book comes down to one question: “If it were a play, is there anyone in there that I wouldn’t want to be?” Happily, in this one, there isn’t.
Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in California.