Unbecoming – Jenny Downham

I checked out the novel Unbecoming by Jenny Downham on a whim from my local Library… in other words, here I am reading yet another book not on my reading list.

This is a story of 3 generations of women (Mary, Caroline, and Katie) who come together in the face of tragedy. Mary, who suffers dementia (more specifically Alzheimer’s), is left in the care of her estranged daughter (Caroline) after Mary’s love Jack passes away. For years, Caroline as given her children the impression that their grandmother does not wish to stay in contact. However, with the arrival of Mary on their doorstep, Katie (the youngest generation of the Copper Haired women) begins to delve into the possibilities that lie within her family heritage. She finds that beneath the fog of her mind, Mary still holds the keys to the family past. It takes all three women coming together to give Mary, and Caroline, the peace to settle their feuds at last.

To me, this story was most interesting by the portrayal of Mary’s mental incapacity. I had yet to read a story about the hindering effects that dementia has on a person. A person who does not suffer can only imagine the pain and anguish of losing memories. Downham did such a beautiful job capturing the fear and panic that is associated with this disease. Although, I’m not sure that Mary would not have been a bit more hostile. She was constantly described as a firecracker and not easily tamed. It’s hard for me to believe that in her memory loss she would have been so compliant of “strangers”. None the less, I loved the way Katie was able to coax the stories back to Mary’s mind.

One of the largest themes of this story is that no one is perfect, and I love that! Every single person within the covers has a form of character flaw. I love the real representation that people get in the book! Yes, Mary ditched her responsibilities as a young unwed mother, but she had to live with that regret for her whole life. Yes, Caroline is a strict SOB at times, but she’s just attempting to be the best she can be (because she knows the worst, let’s be serious…) Yes, Katie is a bit selfish, but she tries to work it at the entire book. While I enjoyed each character, I also had a bit of dislike for them as well. I think that always makes for an incredibly real and touching story.

One character that I could never get a grip on was Pat. I understand I was to feel a deep sympathy for her depression, and I do, however I feel like she was controlled her whole life by jealousy. That trait was most definitely brought about by their father, but it was also fed by Pat as she never let her hatred for her sibling go. Even in her death she continued to blame her short comings on her sister. Pat’s character lacked the ability to claim her own responsibility. I suppose there always has to be a “villain”, and Pat was that for me.

And don’t get me started on the “Blue Blank”…. talk about anticlimactic! Here this whole story is building up to this one event that changed Mary and Caroline’s relationship forever, and it seemed so blah. You’d think that there was something huge like guns or punches…. maybe I’m over dramatic hah. You would just think that if there was something that kept a mother and daughter apart (and grandmother from granddaughter), it would need to be something huge. The simplicity of their situation didn’t do it for me.

The subplots were a bit strange as well…  What was the “real story”, not the “jump” story? At one point Katie confronts Esme to say she will tell the real one… is that the one we already heard? Although I doubt it was a jump, it still sounded like it took Esme by surprise. If asked, I doubt Esme would have agreed to the kiss. Did Downham plan this to seem different? Also, Katie did seem desperate with chasing Esme down…. Here Katie is portrayed to be so coward and scared, but she continues to be bold and seek Esme out in person and in texts… Seemed very strange to me.

Also, what was up with the rainbow chalk crap at the end of Simona and Katie’s beef?? This resolve didn’t turn out exactly as I would have liked it to.. It was just a bizarre action. Plus, I don’t see Simona (who clearly intends to hold grudges) forgiving Katie over coloring. I would have appreciated a more open and honest commentary from Katie to Simona on the realization of why she struggles to be open. Sure, Simona blames Katie’s mom for being too controlling, but perhaps Katie could have explained back story. Simona seemed like a tough outside, sweet inside type of person. I think a true revelation about the family history would have gotten her to forgive, and it would have been more believable.

Over all, Downham did a nice job of telling this story. I liked the broken time line, and the way she makes you feel like you are suddenly recalling a memory with Mary. I loved the idea that it all came about from Katie’s “WHO AM I” crisis. Overall, I liked the very ending. Although I wouldn’t buy this book for my personal book shelf, I would say it was worth a weekend read.


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