Unbecoming by Jenny Downham | Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.5)
As a note, a printed galley of this novel was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not effect my opinions in any way.
Three women, three generations, three secrets–Unbecoming is all of these things. Jenny Downham portrays three different voices in such an incredibly touching way that their stories are not something you’ll forget too quickly. Unbecoming is a portrait of a life lived, of a life catching up to you and of a life only just beginning.
It is so much more than that. It is vivid, unforgettable–Downham weaves together a life of memories and new beginnings; the way a family bonds or breaks and so much more. There’s a dreamy and delightful tone to its prose that makes it a fast read. Unbecoming touches on so many topics that I can’t begin to explain it in just a few paragraphs–the complexities of life and family are present and truthful to the world outside of the novel.
This is it, guys. One of the best young adult books of the year. One of the best young adult books of all time. God, it was just so breathtaking and wow.
Let’s talk characters and their secrets and decisions that refuse to define them. In Unbecoming, we have these three voices and each woman has something different to express in our narration. Three generations of life, three views of the world.
First, there’s Katie, who is a seventeen year old girl that’s alienated by her best friend after she kissed the girl and is facing harshness from her classmates all because of who she loves. Katie is incredibly lonely and yet incredibly warm. She could be anyone–yourself, your best friend, your sister, your neighbor.
Katie is such a fascinating character, for me, and she is a voice that is very important in today’s fiction. She grows so much through the span of one book and it’s just a delight to see her go through trial and error, to question her sexuality and explore her heart.
My heart soars at the way she was developed and the endgame for her. It’s impossible to not love her–she is very typical and yet entirely special. You don’t come across characters as strong and welcoming as Katie–that balance is hard to find in fiction, but Jenny Downham once again captures the complexity of human emotion in young women and I love her for it.
Next, there’s Katie’s mom Caroline. I loved Caroline in spite of her flaws and tense nature. She is entirely overbearing at times and a little hard to swallow, but the more you get to know her the more you understand her and why she is the way she is.
Caroline is unforgettable in the same way Katie is.
Her backstory will break your heart and although you want to shake her multiple times–from the snide remarks she makes about her own mother, to the way she treats said mother, to how much she hovers–she is still utterly real.
There’s a lot to be said about Caroline and what I had hoped for her by novels end. I got my wish on many levels and in the most intimate nods to her inner workings, we get to know her and it’s a beautiful thing.
Lastly, there’s Mary–Katie’s long lost grandmother and Caroline’s mother, who is suffering from dementia. Dementia is such a horrible thing and Mary’s memory in her narration and actions is realistic as they get. I’ve seen my grandmother (who passed away in 2007) go through these memory gaps and the inability to care for herself, so Mary’s story–her past and present–shattered me in many ways.
But Downham handled it with grace and in this exploration of a deteriorating mind, she pulled together a heartfelt relationship between Mary and Katie, as Katie cares for her grandmother and eventually brings the family closer together.
There was so much tackled in the story beyond struggling with dementia or sexuality. There were side characters like Katie’s younger brother, Chris, and his special needs. Or Esme, Katie’s ex best friend who betrayed her and is making her life at school hell. Amy, who is a friend of Esme and completely homophobic and disgusting. Simona, who eventually helps Katie come to terms with her sexuality and becomes a confidant and the two share an exceptional connection.
In Mary and Caroline’s backstory, we see the family up close and deal with depression and abuse. We see the struggle and what caused a gap between the two women, both in two generations and how it shaped them. We meet Mary’s elder sister, Pat, who raised Mary and took over raising Caroline due to Mary being so young.
Pat isn’t what I expected and that backstory is tragic. From her desire to keep Mary and Caroline apart, from the fact that Pat lost so much of herself and her life and the depression that came from it, as well as her marriage of convenience and the way she grew to be around Caroline. It was all so sad and so beautifully done.
Unbecoming, ultimately, will be a book that is devoured and highlighted and put in the spotlight for its realistic portrayal of human emotion. It’s not something you will ever forget and it will give you a boatload of feelings.
It’s not to be missed.
One brief description of the book: moving.