Exclusive Interview with Rebecca Scherm, author of Unbecoming + Free Book Club Kit

As many of you know, I loved Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm. Her debut novel ponders on love, identity and what it all means when you are a young woman. So, I contacted Rebecca and she kindly agreed to answer some questions for me. Plus, Annie Harris from Penguin has allowed me to share this beautiful Book Club Kit with you all – click here to download it. I hope you enjoy it.

1. We could say Unbecoming is an identity thriller, because Grace’s identity becomes the main mystery in the plot. Where did the idea come from?

I grew up watching Hitchcock films and reading noir fiction, and I held in my mind these two feminine types: Grace Kelly as the Hitchcock blond, virtuous and poised, helpful and well-behaved, well brought-up; and the noir femme fatale, who is really more of a plot device than a person. Her motivations are always very simple. And as I got older, I began to rebel against these types, and I started to wonder about the possibility of the Hitchcock heroine and the femme fatale being one very complicated, very real woman. How did she become who she is?

Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock

Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock

2. Grace is one of the most complex and most realistic characters I have encountered, and certainly a very interesting one. She has ambition, she has passion, she’s a sexual being, but she’s also confused, lost and angry at times. How did you negotiate both sides of her while –at the same time – making her inspiring for readers?

Untangling the psychological knot of a character’s identity is what compels me to write fiction. It would be much easier, sure, to write someone less at war with herself, but that wouldn’t hold my attention! I was always trying to understand her: as a writer, my ambition is to empathize with people or characters who are very, very different from me. There are moments in the book when I’m rooting for Grace and moments that I’m just livid with her, as there will be for most readers. And all our moments will be different, I expect, depending on how we see the world and what we ourselves have experienced.

 3. Love and the desire to be loved play a key role in the narrative. Why did you choose to write such a story around emotional wants and needs?

 Our lives are defined in moments where our emotional wants and needs are in conflict with each other or with our practical wants and needs. These are the moments where we make big, life-altering decisions—to break up, to move, to change jobs, to quit, to lie, to buy something, to make a promise. Unbecoming is very much propelled by those intersections and conflicts, which don’t always make sense to the people around us. But that’s just because they can’t really read our whole stories, not like we can—and that’s where fiction comes in. Mary Gaitskill said in a talk once that reading fiction is the closest you can get to living inside another person for a while—I call it “zipping on someone else’s human suit” to my students—and that emotional experience, both as a reader and writer, is what interests me.

4. Eventually, Grace highlights we are all in charge of our identities, and we can actively construct them. It is a hopeful and very open-minded to approach life. Tells us more about where this philosophy comes from.

 Well, I think we do construct our identities, consciously or not—and our failures to control our identities are part of that. Think about how you present yourself in a job interview as opposed to how you present yourself (ha!) on a Friday night with very old friends. Grace’s identity has more public-vs-private friction than most of us have, but we all know what it feels like to transform yourself for a specific audience or environment, even if it’s just a little tweak on social media, at a party, at work.

5.Learning what makes you happy rather than what you thought would make you happy seems to be Grace’s happy ending. But, it is a process, and reading Unbecoming reflects that process of learning and the acceptance that comes from self-knowledge. How did you achieve this?

 Ah, yes, we say “be true to yourself,” but what if the “yourself” in question is someone dangerous? Without giving too much away, I was railing against our expectations of a classic “redemption” narrative, where bad acts are punished or the doer-of-bad-deeds repents, settles down, vows to be good from now on. Well, Grace vows to be good often in the book, and we see how that goes. For me, a realistic “redemption” for this character meant that we catch her in a moment where she sees herself clearly. And for a character so hard to pin down, who resists revelation about herself, that glimpse can only last a moment. But I was always trying to catch her there. It wasn’t easy.

Thank you very much to both Annie Harris and Rebecca Scherm for collaborating with Books & Reviews. Unbecoming was published in the US on 22nd January 2015. 

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Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon (Persephone Books)

Despite my love for feminist literature and women writers, I had never bought a Persephone Book. In case you do not know about them, Persephone Books ‘reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers.’ You can check their catalogue here, or do like I did and follow them on Twitter. Back in September I wondered if they had some review copies available of crime fiction writers, and they kindly sent me Still Missing (1981) by Beth Gutcheon.

Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon

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‘You could hardly get to age thirty-four without learning something about loss. By thirty four you’re bound to have lost your Swiss Army knife, your best friend from fourth grade, your chance to be the centre forward on the starting team, your hope of the Latin prize, quite a few of your illusions, and certainly, somewhere along the line, some significant love.’

Still Missing tells the story of Susan Selky, successful professor of English literature and feminist, whose son, Alex, goes missing on his way to school one May morning in Boston. He only had to walk a few blocks, and there were other mothers who would keep an eye on him, but on a fatal morning, Alex disappeared into thin air. When Susan arrives home from work in the early evening and Alex is not home, she does not worry. Bad things always happen to other people, don’t they? So, she performs some daily tasks until an hour has passed and her son has not gotten home. Where is Alex? From this moment on the novel explores the anxiety, grief and confusion that comes from losing someone you love, especially when there is no closure. And especially when the recently separated mother was in charge of the child, when her husband was at his lover’s flat. And when that mother has a successful career, never loses hope and is determined to be believed, not to be drugged, and to take control of the situation.

I started this novel last December, but it was not the right time to read it. So, I left it on my desk and decided to give it a try after I got over a very bad reading slump. And it worked. It took me 4 evenings to read the book, even though I was busy and there were other things that needed my time and my attention. Still, I wanted to spend more time with Susan Selky, because – as it happens in real life – anxiety and grief lead to a momentarily joyous obsession. It is not that usual in crime fiction to tell the story from the family’s perspective, although Gutcheon also included glimpses into Detective Menetti’s life, both as a detective and as a father and husband.

But, above all, Still Missing is a character study of 1980’s Boston. At the time, women were successfully entering powerful positions, and they were dealing with the consequences of doing so in a patriarchal society. Susan is a much better professor than her husband, and when her book got better reviews than his, she tried to minimize the praise, to minimize the impact on his feelings. The Selkys are also separated, and they have an amicable relationship in lieu of Alex, a family situation that was being normalized at the time. Meanwhile, they have a friend, Jocelyn, who is a Southern single mother and takes pride on being a liberated woman, sexually speaking, and a French homosexual cleaner who loves fashion, beauty tips, and endless sexual encounters with unknown men. As you can see, it is quite a mix of stereotypes, that somehow represent social groups that would be stigmatized and marginalized in the 1980’s. I found the police’s comments on homosexuality quite revealing, yet offensive. AIDS panic had not yet reached the streets, but homophobia was already spreading quickly.

Beth Gutcheon’s novel has been neglected, even though it reads quickly and is an anthropological, social and emotional study on 1980’s Boston. I would highly recommend Still Missing to any crime fiction fans who are looking for a different novel and do not mind it is quite dated. Because this is one of those novels where there are no DNA, no mobile phones, and no computers. Old school crime fiction at its best.

Giveaway: Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm (US and Canda ONLY)

The lovely and generous Annie Harries from Penguin USA has given me ONE copy of Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming to give away. As you probably remember, I loved this book – read my review here – but so did some other writers we admire:

“From the first page, you know Rebecca Scherm is the real thing. UNBECOMING is an assured exploration of the intricate, intense, risky processes that go into creating identity—and into dismantling it.” —Tana French

“Rebecca Scherm’s extraordinarily confident voice and style, this novel’s depth of detail—great characters and a terrifically engaging plot—are a sheer delight to read. There is something very fresh and captivating about this book and best of all I had no idea what was going to happen from one page to the next.” —Kate Atkinson

Rebecca Scherm's Unbecoming giveaway

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Books & Reviews is giving away ONE copy of Rebecca Scherm’s novel Unbecoming. Please read the following rules before entering:

  1. You must be +18 or have your parents/tutor consent to entering this giveaway.
  2. You must live in the USA or Canada.
  3. Entries are open from the 9th of February (2014) to the 14th of February (2015) at 9.30 a.m (BST)
  4. If the winner does not reply in 72 hours after being contacted via email, another one will be chosen.
  5. To enter, just leave a comment below.

Best of luck to everyone entering!

Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell

After the heart-breaking disappointment of From Potter’s Field (Kay Scarpetta #6) by Patricia Cornwell, I thought I had finally reached that stage in the series when the pop-corn quality of the stories turned unbearable, and unreadable. However, Mr.B&R had given me the two next titles on the series, and I decided to give Cause of Death (Kay Scarpetta #7) a try after a disastrous start of the year that left me needing some autopsies, and some pop-corn reading.

Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell

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Cause of Death takes Doctor Kay Scarpetta to the Southern, Virginia setting where we first met her. I was really glad to see her back to a place where she feels she belongs in, and where she has quite a lot of power. However, despite being Virginia’s chief medical examiner, Cause of Death explores the many ways in which the masculine institutions Scarpetta deals with can, and actually do, discriminate against women. When she first approaches the scene of the crime she is stopped by a young policeman, and she has to prove him she really is who she says. When she finally arrives, she sees herself caught on a jurisdictional war between the Navy and the Chesapeake police department, none of which accept her authority. Later on, she is even sexually harassed by a young policeman who would later claim that desperate, middle-aged Kay actually tried to hit on him. So, if there is a novel in the series that explores gender, age and authority prejudices this is it.

The crime was also very interesting, and I could not glimpse the outcome at any moment. On New Year’s Eve an investigating reporter is found dead at the Inactive Naval Ship Yard in Chesapeake. Scarpetta is there covering for a colleague on leave, when she received a very early call about a fatality, but a later call will prove that no one from the police department had notified her before. So ,who did? Because I do not want to give away anything, I can only say that Cause of Death is quite a political crime novel, where Cornwell’s moderate Republican ideals come through. However, I have to add that she presents them in a very respectful way, and despite my not agreeing to some of these political beliefs, I never felt uncomfortable.

So, yes, I would recommend any reader of the Kay Scarpetta series to keep reading even though From Potter’s Field is not that good. Cause of Death is, and Cornwell brings back the powerful, resolute, and inspiring Kay that we love.

January Reading and Hoping for a Better February

2015 has not been the best of years so far. Not in a it’s-cold-and-I-feel-grumpy way, but more like everything seemed to go wrong for a few weeks in a row, which pretty much led me to quit reading for at least 10 days. It was nothing serious, we are all fine at home, and for that I’m grateful every night. Also, things have gotten better during last week, I’m now planning lots of updates and posts, and I’m back to reading. Actually, I’m finding it really hard to put a book down and sit down to write and do research! For what I’ve read in other blogs, January has not been the best month to many of you either, so here’s to a better February for everyone, full of reading, great books, and lots of reviews. Meanwhile, these are the books that kept me sane last month:

  • I finished The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty, which I had started back in December.
  • Because everything was feeling so wrong, I picked up Kay Scarpetta #7, Cause of Death, and I found solace in the autopsy rooms and the morgue.
  • I discovered Rebecca Scherm’s Unbecoming, a terrific novel on crafting your identity in your 20s.
  • Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon was the first Persephone Book I read and now I can’t wait to lay my hands on another one.

Stay tuned because all the books will be reviewed here in the next 10 days.

So, since it’s Monday, and it’s February, what are you reading? I still haven’t picked up a book after finishing Still Missing because I thought the postwoman would bring some books today. Alas, she hasn’t. But don’t worry, it’s not like I’ve run out of books ;) Meanwhile, we are expecting a snowstorm tomorrow, that will more likely than not keep me home reading and writing until Sunday. I know, lucky me!

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

I was offered a review copy of Rebbeca Scherm’s novel Unbecoming by Annie Harris, from Viking. At first, I spent a few days thinking whether this was the kind of novel that I would like, but Annie always offers me books that I love, plus, the book was to be released on my birthday. So, I accepted, and I got an advanced review copy of one of the best, most complex and more life-changing novels I have ever read.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

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‘Just-be-yourself had its limits. She adapted to his vision. She liked that girl more than she had ever liked herself before anyway, so that was the self she became.’

Unbecoming is a novel about identity and how love shapes it. But it is also a novel about the role we play in the creation of ourselves, because every day, by little acts we construct a self that we eventually label as ‘us’. The same way that feminism teaches women to un-learn patriarchal ways, norms and expectations, Unbecoming deconstructs what made Grace – the main character – the person that she is.

When we first meet Grace she is living in Paris under the name ‘Julie’. We do not know why or how this Tennessee young woman has ended up restoring antiques in a French basement, but that is part of the process of unbecoming: Grace leads us from the complex process of becoming someone – back in her childhood years in Tennessee – challenging and questioning that identity – and how an education plays a key role on this – and, finally playing an active role to be the woman that she wants to be. No matter what that implies, and no matter if it goes against what she had been fighting for all her life. Because, Unbecoming tells us, changing your mind and letting yourself be changed by it, is something we should cherish.

Reading this novel was, as you can imagine, quite a journey. Scherm has created a poetic, inspiring and thought-provoking novel. Postmodern theories on identities claim we are never fully constructed as subjects, we are never complete, we are constantly evolving, changing and, as a consequence, open to new opportunities and new ideas. Out identities, our ‘selves’ are just a fallacy, and by our daily actions, we can change who/what we are. Grace does exactly this by shaping herself into the girl who her middle-school boyfriend and his family want to meet. But, at what cost?

‘Art was there to scratch at people’s brains, to help ideas find traction in metaphor that they could not when made explicit.’

Unbecoming is also a novel about art . When Grace moves to NYC to study History of Art she discovers a whole new world where she feels comfortable in. She can identify and catalogue items so easily, she even scares herself at the infinite possibilities of her talent. And, even though the art business is described as male-dominated, it also offers a space for women to express themselves. However, because Grace is a Southern, young woman, she is seen as a provincial and naïve newbie to the trade, a supposedly subjected position that she manages to take advantage of.

I adored Unbecoming for many reasons, but the main one is that it, as a young woman, Grace’s story made me question why we are like we are in our twenties. How did our childhood and teenage years shape us? Is our present self simply a consequence of past acts, or are we actively constructing ourselves? How does love – and the lack or need for it – shape what we become? Scherm also makes a great job at exploring and describing places, and spaces. The most vivid one is that of Grace’s hometown in Tennessee. There were times when reading Unbecoming felt as sunny and warm as a Southern evening, and the joy, pain, and fear it describes are worthy of a good, old country song. I could not simply ask for more.

And in case you need further proof, the fantastic Kate Atkinson also loved it:

“Rebecca Scherm’s extraordinarily confident voice and style, this novel’s depth of detail—great characters and a terrifically engaging plot—are a sheer delight to read. There is something very fresh and captivating about this book and best of all I had no idea what was going to happen from one page to the next.” —Kate Atkinson