Author: Jenny Downham
Publication Information: Scholastic, 2016 (first published 2015)
Source: Overdrive (ebook) – Stonewall Honor list
Genre: Young Adult – Mystery, Family Drama
Warnings: Non-graphic sexual content, legal alcohol consumption, homophobia
Rating: 4 stars
Recommended For: People who like family dramas and multiple storylines set in different time periods. Also has crossover appeal with adult readers.
Katie’s life is falling apart: her best friend thinks she’s a freak, her mother, Caroline, controls every aspect of her life, and her estranged grandmother, Mary, appears as if out of nowhere. Mary has dementia and needs lots of care, and when Katie starts putting together Mary’s life story, secrets and lies are uncovered: Mary’s illegitimate baby, her zest for life and freedom and men; the way she lived her life to the full yet suffered huge sacrifices along the way. As the relationship between Mary and Caroline is explored, Katie begins to understand her own mother’s behavior, and from that insight, the terrors about her sexuality, her future, and her younger brother are all put into perspective.
(Summary from Goodreads)
I really enjoyed UNBECOMING, despite how slowly it felt like it moved. It took me a little while to get into it, but I was sucked in by the mystery about halfway through as I kept reading to find out what had happened between Caroline and Mary all those years ago to led to their estrangement. I also really enjoyed watching Katie develop a relationship with her grandmother even as I rooted for her to stand up for herself to her mother and her schoolmates.
There are a lot of things packed into this book, and I think Downham wove them together masterfully. There’s the main storyline, with Mary winding up on Katie and Caroline’s doorstep with dementia and trying to care for her while Caroline wrangles with the healthcare system to get Mary placed into a home, but then there are actually multiple storylines, as Mary’s story and Katie’s story are woven together to paint a picture about Mary and Caroline’s estrangement. We get to see Mary as a young woman who refused to be unashamed of her sexuality and her decision to give up Caroline for adoption. We also get to see Katie’s struggles to define herself despite Caroline being controlling, not to mention the bullying she faces at school because she kissed a female frenemy – which complicates things for Katie, who is questioning her sexual orientation. That particular storyline I thought was handled sensitively, and I thought Downham did a respectable job capturing how confusing it is not to understand that particular facet of one’s identity.
My main complaint is that while there’s a lot of focus of Mary and Katie, we barely glimpse Caroline’s perspective. While intellectually I could understand why she might be controlling and cold as a person, I never really felt sympathy for her. A lot of that might have to do with the fact that she was cast largely as a villain in both Mary and Katie’s storylines: she was the daughter who rejected her mother, and the mother trying to enforce her will on her eighteen-year-old daughter. This could’ve been softened if we’d gotten more of her voice.