Three women – three secrets – one heart-stopping story. Katie, seventeen, in love with someone whose identity she can’t reveal.Her mother Caroline, uptight, worn out and about to find the past catching up with her. Katie’s grandmother, Mary, back with the family after years of mysterious absence and ‘capable of anything’, despite suffering from Alzheimer’s. As Katie cares for an elderly woman who brings daily chaos to her life, she finds herself drawn to her. Rules get broken as allegiances shift. Is Mary contagious? Is ‘badness’ genetic? In confronting the past, Katie is forced to seize the present. As Mary slowly unravels and family secrets are revealed, Katie learns to live and finally dares to love. Funny, sad, honest and wise, Unbecoming is a celebration of life, and learning to honour your own stories.
This is the third book from the YA Book Prize shortlist that I’ve read so far – I’m very proud of myself! The other two are The Lie Tree and The Rest Of Us Just Live Here. A group are shadowing it at school, so hopefully I’ll read a couple more before the winner is announced next month.
It isn’t a spoiler to say that the person Katie is in love with is a girl. Sexuality is not a plot twist and, besides, it’s revealed pretty early on. If anything, it’s an encouragement: lesbians in YA! (This AfterEllen article is a good list of lesbians in YA, but is also from 2014, so it’ll have a few missing, including this gem.) Also, joy, the lesbians don’t die! Hooray! That’s not a spoiler either, because it never even looks like they’re going to die, and that is important when there are so many dead lesbians about.
Unbecoming is about family, and self-discovery, and testing boundaries, and history, and truth. It’s about being hurt, and burying the hurt rather than forgiving it, and coming to terms with that when something forces a person to remember it. It’s about second chances, when to stop giving them, and making new friends. It’s about disability, and illness, and hiding them. It’s also about how the perfect outfit can really help things about, and lipstick can make you brave.
I loved this book. I read it in a couple of days, and it made my heart ache with recognition in places, but it also taught me a lot – I’ve never had to care for someone with dementia, for example, but my brother has a learning disability so some of the bits about Chris resonated deeply. But it’s not worthy and preachy, either. It’s a good, readable, enjoyable YA, which has a lot to do with how much I liked it. I really think Unbecoming has something for everyone and I want everyone to read it, so I’ve suggested it for a new book club I’ve joined!