At the end of August, I listened to teen/YA novel Unbecoming by Jenny Downham on audio, and I was glued to my iPod! I enjoyed every moment of this thoughtful, intricate story about three generations of women in a British family.
Red-haired teen Katie feels like her life is falling apart. Her best friend isn’t speaking to her, everyone at school thinks she’s a freak, and her mother tries to control every aspect of Katie’s life. Her mom, Caroline, is a single mother because her dad recently moved out. To make matters worse, Katie’s brother, Chris has special needs (perhaps Asperger’s?), so Katie is often left in charge of him while her mother works.
Now, into this already complicated life comes Mary, Katie’s grandmother. Katie never knew she even had a grandmother because Caroline hasn’t spoken to her mother in many years. When Mary’s partner, Jack, dies unexpectedly, the hospital calls Caroline because her number had been listed as the emergency contact. The bigger problem is that Mary clearly has fairly advanced dementia and can’t be sent home alone. The hospital insists that Caroline bring her home with her, though Caroline vows to find her a place in a nursing home as soon as possible.
With Mary in their lives, things are very different. She can’t really can’t take care of herself or remember recent details about her life – she even has trouble remembering who Caroline, Katie, and Chris are – and she has a tendency to wander out of the house and around town if not watched carefully. So now, during summer break, Katie is expected to watch both Chris and Mary while her mother works. And her best friend still won’t return her texts.
Mary can, however, sometimes remember stories from her past, and Katie starts a memory notebook for her, where she writes down the family stories that Mary tells her. Little by little, as Mary remembers and Katie writes, long-buried secrets come to light that are shocking to Katie…and help her begin to understand why her mother is the way she is. Meanwhile, Katie is hiding a secret of her own and struggling with her own identity. The secrets and lies reverberate through the generations.
The way that this novel gradually reveals their family history, in bits and pieces, is absolutely captivating. Chapters alternate between the perspectives of Katie and Mary (who thinks of Katie as The Girl). Besides seeing their secrets gradually spool out, it is wonderful to watch the warm relationship that grows between grandmother and granddaughter as they spend time together and get to know each other.
There are so many intricate layers to this engrossing novel: Katie’s internal struggles in figuring out who she is, Mary’s dementia (which is depicted in very real and intimate detail), the two mother-daughter relationships, and even women’s roles through the years. It also delves into matters of love, friendship, and identity. I loved these characters, and I was pulled right into their story, never wanting to leave them (yet wanting everything to work out for them in the end). This compelling story feels honest and real, heartwarming, yet also at times heartbreaking, and wholly immersive. I loved spending time in their world.
P.S. I also loved the cover on this book!
You can listen to an audio sample at the Amazon link below: