Unbecoming by Jenny Downham

Unbecoming by Jenny DownhamUnbecoming by Jenny Downham
Published by Scholastic Inc. on February 23rd 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
Pages: 384
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Three women. Three generations. Three secrets. Katie's life is falling apart: her best friend thinks she's a freak, her mother, Caroline, controls every aspect of her life, and her estranged grandmother, Mary, appears as if out of nowhere. Mary has dementia and needs lots of care, and when Katie starts putting together Mary's life story, secrets and lies are uncovered: Mary's illegitimate baby, her zest for life and freedom and men; the way she lived her life to the full yet suffered huge sacrifices along the way. As the relationship between Mary and Caroline is explored, Katie begins to understand her own mother's behavior, and from that insight, the terrors about her sexuality, her future, and her younger brother are all put into perspective. Funny, sad, honest, and wise, this powerful multigenerational novel from international bestseller Jenny Downham celebrates life like no book before.

“She watches the tears drip onto her skirt and spread like flowers and she knows this is the end of every future she’s ever imagined for herself.”

Do you like family dramas? Do you like those books that portray characters in such a way that they feel completely real and honest? Because this book won’t be for everyone – certainly not those looking for something fast-paced and driven by melodrama – but I found it so beautiful. A sensitive family portrait wrapped up in secrets and misunderstandings.

Unbecoming shows three generations of women, each grappling with their own past and problems. The author goes into great detail about their lives, their flaws, and their mistakes, making them deserving of sympathy AND realistically imperfect human beings.
Mary is an elderly woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s but still knows she is unwelcome in her daughter’s home; through flashbacks, journals and letters, her youth is revealed, showing that all may not be as it seemed. Caroline is Mary’s daughter, but she has never considered Mary her mother. She smothers her children with behaviour she believes is protective, whilst also keeping secrets about her own childhood. And then there’s seventeen year-old Katie, a girl trying to come to terms with her sexuality.
I guess some people will find this kind of realistic storytelling slow, but I found it subtle, honest and all the more powerful because of it. It’s noticeably lacking in melodrama – the Alzheimer’s is portrayed accurately and sensitively, without being used as an excuse for emotional manipulation; Katie’s sexuality brings her uncertainty and worry, but it is not an angst machine.
And yet, the characters feel so incredibly real. I can’t stress that enough. It’s truly difficult to believe that they aren’t out there, somewhere, living their lives. I think that’s because I understood everyone’s reactions and felt like it was a true representation of exactly how someone would act in those circumstances.
The flashbacks to the past, unlike some novels, were exciting, enlightening and occasionally sad. I loved delving into Mary’s youth and I thought the two different views of her – as a fiery, spirited young woman with ambitions and a “reputation”, and also a no less fiery elderly woman with Alzheimer’s – was its own subtle kind of sadness.
Often I think the saddest, most emotional kind of books are not those with dramatic scenes of death and heartbreak, but those with a quiet kind of honesty. The kind that show the everyday truths of life.

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