Mary knew that young women in nineteen-fifties England were supposed to be modest, self-deprecating, and demure. They should not have too much self-confidence, not assert their sexuality or independence, and never express their appetite or desire. They should be restrained, make sacrifices, and put others first.
Mary knew it, but she thought it was poppycock. Baloney, she thought, what a load of nonsense, and she cocked a snook at it.
—Unbecoming, by Jenny Downham
Unbecoming opens in a hospital, with seventeen-year-old Katie learning that not only does she have a grandmother she’s never met, but that that said grandmother—Mary, who has been estranged from Katie’s mother for pretty much ever, whose boyfriend just died, and who has dementia—will be staying with them for a while. This comes shortly after Katie’s father having an affair—resulting in a new sibling she hasn’t met yet—her parents splitting up, and her mother packing Katie and her younger brother up and moving to a new town. And it comes shortly after Katie becomes a pariah at school after kissing her best friend, Esme.
So there’s a whole lot going on, and Downham deals with it all in depth—with empathy, honesty, and generosity. Those first two descriptors speak for themselves, but I use that third one, generosity, because she allows her characters to make mistakes, to do selfish things, to be real people, and she does it without judgment or irony or snark. Unbecoming is a heart book.
It’s about pain in families, and it’s about how if that pain isn’t faced head on, it will cycle and repeat—the rot will bloom and grow, it will change shape through the generations, but it will continue to fester, and it will continue to hurt. Downham does a beautiful job of showing how the same issues continue to crop up throughout three generations of parents and siblings, and there are parallels everywhere and between pretty much every character, but never in a way that’s too on-the-nose or obvious.
It’s about trying to do the right thing, and how your reasons—Are you doing it for you? For someone else? Because it’s expected of you? Because you’re scared or angry or hurting?—for doing that thing can have a huge effect on how you feel later. That doing “the right thing” purely because it’s expected of you can lead to resentment, to unhappiness, to an unfulfilled life—that all it gets you is some kind of twisted satisfaction, and how that kind of satisfaction isn’t very… satisfying. It’s about allowing yourself to want, and about the power of allowing yourself options and possibilities.
And it’s about this:
Mum had said she’d avoided wearing the gifts Mary bought her. And here was Pat writing that she brazened it out, even suggesting Mum wore them to annoy her. The truth, Katie thought, is a slippery thing.
Which is to say: It’s about truth and memory, and how emotion shapes our vision of the past. It’s about how that vision shapes the stories that we tell, and the truth as our listeners know it. That the family stories we think of as gospel are shaped by the tellers, that it’s impossible to tell a story without our vision affecting and changing it in some way—and that the same goes for listening, in that our understanding of any given story is affected by what we bring to it.
And finally, it should be noted that this is a crying book. Be ready.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.