Unbecoming

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Unbecoming Book Poster Image
Family secrets, mature themes in thoughtful drama.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Some cultural insight into life in the U.K. both now and during the post-WWII period. A few facts about infant development. Some treatments for dementia mentioned.

Positive Messages

It takes courage to be yourself; being yourself is a life choice, and you only get one life, so don't spend it being someone or something you're not. Don't apologize for who you are; other people aren't worth cowering for. Don't suppress resentment or dissatisfaction; talk about them before they fester, and ask for what you need if you're overwhelmed. Truth doesn't exist because everyone has her own version of events; all you can do is tell your own version, listen to others', and try to make sense of it all. Try new things because life is a work in progress; the world is various and unfolding, and anything is possible. If you don't get close to another person, you'll never be in danger, but you'll never really know love or what it is to be alive.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Grandmother Mary is a free spirit who believes it's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. She feels that all the bad things that happen are worth it to "feel such voltage" from the good things. Mom Caroline is strict and regimented out of fear. She pushes daughter Katie to academic excellence and strictly controls her social life and leisure time. Katie, 17, tries to be brave and get outside her comfort zone, but at first all her attempts at bravery backfire in some way. She learns to be true to herself and that some things in life are worth taking a risk for. She's smart and empathetic and takes care of her ailing grandmother.

Violence

Suicide is mentioned, including the ways in which Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf killed themselves.

Sex

A few kisses, both same-sex and opposite-sex, with little or no detail; one or two with tongue are briefly described with more specifics. Teen pregnancy is a prominent theme. A painful labor and childbirth are described in some detail. Same-sex physical attraction described briefly a few times.

Language

Infrequent, but used multiple times each: "slut," "piss off," "s--t." Once or twice each: "bitch," "dyke," "crap."

Consumerism

A few social media, gaming, fashion, and snack products for mood or character; rarely mentioned British products such as Humber and Pimm's may not resonate with U.S. readers.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens drink beer and cocktails (piña colada, Sex on the Beach, Blue Shark) at a party; mention that everyone's high or drunk. Older teens in the '50s and '60s drink wine. Teens go to pub with fake ID and order rum and Coke. Katie compares feeling good to having had cocktails. Mention of a teen rolling and smoking a joint. Medications Tolterodine and Lisinopril mentioned. Grandmother Mary smokes cigarettes; adults in the '50s and '60s mention smoking. Pipe-smoking mentioned once or twice.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Unbecoming is the story of three generations of women and how their past and the secrets they've kept reverberate across time and one another. It explores mature themes through the points of view of each woman at different times in their lives, making it best for strongly independent readers fascinated by family history and dynamics. Drinking, smoking, and strong language are rare; one party is matter-of-fact about teens drinking beer and cocktails, and it's mentioned that they're probably high or drunk. Smoking in the '50s and '60s is mentioned more frequently. There are a few kisses between same-sex and opposite-sex couples as Katie, 17, starts to realize she's attracted to girls. Teen pregnancy is a prominent theme, and a painful labor and childbirth are described. Other mature themes include memory loss, developmental delay, hiding the truth, and abandonment.

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What's the story?

Katie kissed a girl, and she liked it. Unfortunately the girl, Katie's best friend, then destroys what little social standing Katie had at school. In the midst of all this drama, Katie's estranged grandmother unexpectedly comes to stay with Katie, her mother, and younger brother. Grandmother Mary suffers from memory loss, probably from Alzheimer's, and Katie now has to spend the summer taking care of Mary, who escapes the house daily to wander lost around town. To try to help Mary's memory, Katie starts writing down Mary's stories about her past. Family secrets start to come out, enraging Katie's mother, who wants to keep them all firmly locked away. But Mary's not the only one with secrets: Katie can't be honest about herself with her family or friends, and her mother's definitely hiding something, too. Katie's determined to find out the truth about her family, but when opening old wounds starts to tear everything and everyone apart, can Katie's UNBECOMING heal the wounds and bring peace to herself and her family?

Is it any good?

This drama set in the United Kingdom is an absorbing look at family dynamics and how the past, even if it’s forgotten, continues to echo through the following generations. Shifting points of view between 17-year-old Katie and her grandmother add depth and richness to the slow reveal of the family’s past. It also broadens the appeal beyond YA; Unbecoming is a book that can be savored by adults and teens alike. Teen drama and romance are definitely present, but they take a backseat to piecing together Grandmother Mary’s story, so it’s best for mature, independent readers who enjoy family history and dynamics.

This is Jenny Downham’s third YA novel, and she continues to hone her skill with varied, believable narrators who are easy to relate to. The different voices in different periods of time are ably unified by an underlying warmth, sly humor, and refreshing honesty that keep the engaging characters on your mind long after the last page is turned.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about memory loss. Has anyone experienced it in your own family? Did Unbecoming change your perception of memory loss or of living with someone who suffers from it?

  • What does being "unbecoming" mean? How is it different, or the same, for Mary and Katie?

  • Is there someone you could make a "memory book" for? Do you think they'd like one? What would you like to know about your parents' or grandparents' lives?

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