Review: Unbecoming by Jenny Downham
Unbecoming by British novelist Jenny Downham follows 3 generations of women, each with fiery red hair and their own secret. The youngest, Katie, has been secretly hiding her sexuality. That is, until she kisses her best friend and rumors fly, quickly making Katie an outcast whose best friend wants nothing to do with her. Katie’s mom, Caroline, refuses to reveal her secret. She was born to an unwed mother, Mary, and was left with Mary’s older sister Pat who raised Caroline as her own. Caroline vowed that she would always be there for her children, unlike Mary. And Mary, Katie’s grandmother, has her own version of why she left Pat to raise Caroline.
The lives of these three women come crashing together when Caroline gets a call that Mary is at the hospital and in need of family—her husband had died, and now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Mary needs a caretaker. Though resentment causes Caroline to desperately find a way out, she has no choice but to bring Mary home to stay with her family, a family which only consists of Katie and Katie’s younger brother, Chris, who has special needs. Katie’s father recently left the family for his younger pregnant girlfriend. Katie and Chris haven’t seen their father since.
The storyline weaves between present day and the 1950’s. It follows Katie as she struggles with friendships, the responsibility of watching her younger brother, and her sexuality. She is also put in charge of watching Mary, whom Katie becomes fascinated by. She starts a memory book for Mary, and writes down all of Mary’s stories. She also involves herself in uncovering the mystery of Mary’s “blue blanks”—the lost parts of Mary’s memory which are deeply troubling her.
Moving back to the 1950’s-60’s, Mary’s own coming of age story with her sister Pat is revealed. Mary wants to move to Paris and become an actress. She loves attention from boys, but Mary’s sister and father think Mary’s behavior is inappropriate.
This novel is a great addition to your classroom library for many reason. This is a great book for exploring characterization and perspective. Every character clearly has their own perspective on the events which lead up to present day. How is it that Mary, Pat, and Caroline all experienced the same events with very different interpretations and feelings? Why is Katie so empathetic for Mary, yet Caroline remains resentful? How does Chris feel about the dynamics of his family? By following various characters with clashing perspectives, this novel is perfect for exploring these ideas.
I also love that this novel explores the emotions of a teenager who is in the process of coming it. This is clearly not easy for Katie, and she has found herself with basically no support system to speak of—that is, until she has the strength to demand it.
Finally, there are many research opportunities aligned with this novel. One example is that Mary’s Alzheimer’s disease plays center role the entire novel. It would be impossible to read this novel without developing questions about the disease. This provides students with a great opportunity to research a question they have about Alzheimer’s, and maybe it could kick off a service learning project involving spending time in a nursing home as a friendly visitor and learning about another person’s perspective on life.
Overall, this book gets a thumbs-up. Having recently been released in the United States in paperback, don’t hesitate to add this title to your high school classroom library.
Unbecoming by Jenny Downham. 2017. 9781338160727. 9-12.