Thursday, January 14, 2016

What Did the Book Club Think of Rebecca Scherm's "Unbecoming?"

The story begins in France, where Julie is restoring old jewelry and other antiques. She works next to her only friend in what turns out to be a chop shop. She’s got no papers and little money, so why not pick Julie to remove valuable gems from pieces and replace them with baubles. And of course Julie is under the gun because she is really on the run from Tennessee, where, she was more involved with an art heist of a small Tennessee town’s historical home than she lets on. Two of her friends are getting out of jail, one of whom is secretly her husband and the other, his close friend she had a fling with. The probably both want her, but not just because they love her. Oh, and her name is Grace, not Julie.

Unbecoming is a heist story that is more character driven than plot driven, and while you might find that a bit of an odd description, just think of spy novels, where you go from cerebral espionage novels to high-octane special agent ones. We knew it was a spin on Hitchcock’s It Takes a Thief, but after listening to Scherm talk at her recent appearance, we understood that her intent was to anti-Hitchcock the story, as his and many Hollywood heist stories of the day redeemed the villains. In her head, the happy couple ran off together to be thieves, but at least in the fifties, which could never stand in big Hollywood.

We have to provide a little backstory and unlike my last 17 write-ups of Unbecoming for our recent event, offer a few spoilers. Grace grew up in the small town of Garland. She ran with a pack of boys, all of whom ran themselves into financial difficulty. Riley had a local art showing and got some money, but he used the money badly. Grace so wanted to be part of Riley’s family that she secretly married him, only her a series of little thefts got the best of her. And Alls and Greg have their own problems. So Grace, who has gone off to New York to study and has learned the ins and outs of appraisals, comes up with this plan to rob the Josephus Wynne House (and yes, this is something we don’t know when the book opens – she’s completely in the thick of it, and there’s further revelations to come). After all, it’s not event really guarded; there’s just a tour guide. But things go wrong.

The reaction to Unbecoming is fascinating because it covered the whole range of attitudes. I can’t say it was polarizing because that would indicate love or hate. No, in our crowd, about a third of us loved the book, a third of us liked it (or could be swayed in the direction of the most compelling argument) and a third of us were pretty animatedly unhappy with it. Now this is not unusual for book club discussions, but was unusual is that one of our attendees who is more likely to be on the negative side surprisingly loved it, and she was sort of taken aback when there were a couple of people vociferously arguing against the story. (American hardcover image at right--reminds me of the original concept for Lauren Fox's Days of Awe.)

Because as I said, most of us viewed this as a character study, a lot of the discussion focused on the Grace/Julie character and it was so interesting to read after Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, another woman damaged by her upbringing. A vocal minority didn’t see her as a believable character, including Gail, who discussed it from her background in psychotherapy. But several others understood her to be a woman looking for family. (Thorndyke large print cover at left. Don't love the layout, but think the image is pretty good).

To me, a lot of this hinged on whether Grace was, as they say, a good person who made bad decisions or a sociopath in training. The group was a bit divided on this, and I should note that Scherm herself said that she didn’t write Grace as a sociopath. But having read enough (well, three) books about sociopaths, I felt that the story involved a lot of Grace/Julie explaining her behavior, and even her decisions about passion (including a sexual tryst that sort of came out of nowhere) were convenient for her to get what she wanted, or to get her out of bad situations. Over and over again, Grace made decisions that benefitted herself at the expense of others, and even her secret (yes, spoiler, though that one’s in the jacket copy) is an attempt to get what she wants, not just the man but the man’s family. Or to put it in Antiques Roadshow lingo, is Grace real or a fake? And how many other people in the book are also faking it, sociopaths or not?

Of the antique restoring and appraisal, we had a couple of people who were a little bored by this, but most people liked it, with one of the naysayers noting it was what she most liked about the book. I heard this about B.A. Shaprio’s The Art Forger as well. And while I hadn’t really thought about it too much beforehand, it appears that Unbecoming does have some parallels to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which came up not just in discussion but also in many reviews. One attendee noted Grace’s desire to fix things, both in her relationships and her artisan work, which is of course an argument against sociopathy.

A lot of attendees really liked the character Hannah best, Grace/Julie’s coworker at the shop. But then of course it turned out that Hannah also had a secret, and turned out to be not as genuine as we hoped. This façade issue came up several times – her boss Jacqueline was more disreputable than she first realized, and her friends also were easily persuaded to go to the dark side. This might be indicative of Grace herself (good person makes bad decisions) or of many attendees of the book club (liked reading the book but had some issues and could be persuaded to like it less by the folks who didn’t like it). I love that one of the things I wrote down was “surprisingly believable” and another was “not believable.” And so it goes. (At right is the only international edition I found. It's Dutch! I think it was probably hard to translate the title and think calling it Grace was not a bad idea.)

I say again and again, there’s a lot to be said for disagreement when discussing a book, and our discussion was quite spirited! I’d be more concerned with someone picking up the book because they thought it was going to be a Harlan Coben rollercoaster ride; it’s not. Scherm has said in interviews she was looking more at the psychological thriller vibe of Ruth Rendell, not the Wexler series, but the stand-alone novels.

And last but not least, I came up with an idea for a book club doing a year of Hitchcock films and novels. You read Boy, Snow, Bird with Vertigo, The Girl on the Train with Rear Window, and Unbecoming with To Catch a Thief. You can go literal and read Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train with Hitchcock’s film, and then you just have to find matchups for some of the other films you want to watch, perhaps North by Northwest, The Birds, and Psycho. Did you know that the original novel Psycho was written by Milwaukee’s Robert Bloch, who was a customer at the old Schwartz Bookshps?

I've sorted through some of the reviews for you. Probably the best review was Kim Kankiewicz in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. As Scherm said, "she gets it!" Amy Gentry in the Chicago Tribune sort of captured our dilemma about character disagreement about Grace. She saw her as too sympathetic to work. And both Marilyn Stasio in The New York Times and Hallie Ephron in The Boston Globe were in the middle, sort of duplicating our book club's reactions to the book. Mo, one of our attendees, said the Good Reads had a similar curve.

Here are a couple of good interviews:
--V.V. Ganeshananthan interviews Scherm in Fiction Writers Review
--Joanna Demkiewicz interviews Scherm in The Riveter.

No, we're not becoming a nonfiction book club but our next two selections are:
--Monday, February 1, 7 pm: Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl
--Monday, March 7, 7 pm: Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy.

It turns out that Bryan Stevenson is appearing at MATC on March 9, 1:30 pm. We're not the bookseller of record for this one, but it looks like you can register here.

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