There are two major things going on in Katie’s life simultaneously: (1) Katie kissed her best friend, Esme, and now they’re not friends and (2) Mary, the grandmother Katie never met, has come to live with them. Mary’s partner, Jack, suddenly passed away, listing Katie’s mother, Caroline, as the person to contact in an emergency. The thing is, Mary has dementia and she and Caroline do not get along.
As the school term has just ended, Katie volunteers to care for Mary while proper care is arranged, which suits her mother. The two form a close bond and Mary in her lucid moments tells of her life, both sad and happy. Katie learns that Mary left Caroline in the care of Mary’s sister, Pat, since Mary at 16 was not capable of raising an illegitimate child. Katie learns of Mary’s ‘carefree’ life in the London theater, as well as the regrets of losing Caroline.
There is so much going on in Unbecoming, a wonderful, bittersweet novel. Downham gently explores Katie’s sexuality, the family’s intergenerational dynamics and Katie’s special needs brother, Chris. The rapport between grandmother and granddaughter is gratifying. The contrast between a ‘carefree’ grandmother and her overly careful daughter makes one wonder which traits are genetic and which are learned. Although none of us can really know how a person with early Alzheimers feels, moments of lucidity offset by moments of clouded memory, Downham ably puts us in Mary’s head, a difficult feat.
One of the best books I’ve read this year and one that will probably make my 2016 Top Ten list, Unbecoming is a tender novel that will warm your heart.