Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming, like fellow nominee The Sympathizer, features a protagonist with two faces. As Julie, she is a young American from California who works as a restorer of art and objets d’art in Paris. But her hidden identity is Grace from Tennessee, a poor girl with big aspirations, on the run from her husband and his best friend. The novel turns on a crime for which Grace is largely responsible.
Grace latched on to Riley Graham, a beautiful if somewhat unfocused boy from a well-to-do family in her home town of Garland. She became his girlfriend, but more importantly, she became his mother’s daughter – motherless herself, this is a strong inducement to maintain her relationship with Riley. They marry secretly just as she leaves for New York City, where she goes to school and gets a job at a gallery. Home again in Tennessee for the summer, she realizes that Riley and a couple of his friends are committed to robbing a local museum. She robs it first and gets on a plane for Prague, where she learns that she has a lot to learn when it comes to crime.
It’s no surprise to hear that Riley and the guys botch the heist and are sentenced to prison. What is a surprise is that none of them try to blame her for their actions.
As Julie, Grace is taken advantage of by her shady employer, which gives her the little excuse she needs to indulge her desire for pretty baubles and ill-gotten gains. When she’s finally found, the book takes a somewhat surprising twist.
Scherm writes a suspenseful novel and the pacing is good. She makes Grace’s story plausible. However, I never truly believed that Grace was in any danger and I would have liked to see more of the bad girl side. Perhaps Grace was becoming that bad girl, growing into her true self. But an edgier book would have been a stronger book.
In comparison to the other Edgar nominees, Unbecoming is more engaging than Past Crimes, but not as compelling as Where All Light Tends to Go. Bleak as it is, Joy’s book has a stronger narrative and gripping voice.
Final rankings – the Literary Lunchbox Edgar for Best First Novel goes to Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. It was an excellent competition and all the debut novels are well worth reading.
Literary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings: Best First Novel
- Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
- Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm
- Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton