Unhappy Women Being Mysterious In Paris part II: Unbecoming

Earlier this month I noticed that my reading habits had taken on a brief trend: books about secretive young woman hiding from their problems in Paris.  Patrick Modiano’s In The Café Of Lost Youth introduced me to the inscrutable, magnetic, restless Louki.  The book’s three other narrators found themselves consumed with interest in Louki’s past, her motivations, and her preference for the “neutral zones” in Paris, where everything seems either suspended or in transit.  The next book I picked up to read was Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm.  It so transpired that Unbecoming also features a secretive, no-entirely-heroic female protagonist who tries to hide by melting into the Paris scenery.

unbecoming

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

Star Rating:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

“The first lie Grace had told Hanna was her name.” That’s the first line in Unbecoming.  Grace was the beautiful, accommodating, clever girl from Garland, Tennessee.  In Paris, she introduces herself as Julie “because it was sweet and easy on the French tongue.”   Already, we’re focused on a woman lying about her name in Paris.  Excellent.

The tense descriptions of Grace’s furtive life in Paris immediately made me curious about what had happened in Tennessee to make her so determinedly ignore-able. In a small antique refurbishment workshop, with only her co-worker as anything like a friend, Grace repairs gold plating, oils hinges, and worries constantly that the boys she knew in Garland will find her.  In between scenes at Parisian flea markets and intriguing peeps into the goings-on at Zanuso et Filles (where not all the antiques are necessarily being repaired), hints at Grace’s reasons for leaving America transform into the real story.

The real story is that Grace wanted to be part of Riley Graham’s perfect, loving family ever since she was a child.  The real story is that she learned how to be a good girlfriend, a good daughter-in-law, a good member of the group, and perfected it to an art form.  Grace’s motivations for this assimilation into a life of Southern charm were largely innocent – the scenes in which she adores Mrs. Graham’s lifestyle and looks after Riley’s feelings show how sweet she can be – but in her practice at becoming what other people want her to be, she honed how to use her skills of manipulation more seriously.

Falling in love with Riley’s best friend definitely wasn’t part of the plan, but it shakes Grace up so much that her relationship struggles lead to a bigger, badder, better plan: robbing the historic Wynn house for it’s overlooked valuables.  With her knowledge from a stint with antiques at college in NYC, Riley’s unimaginative but impressive painting techniques, and two slightly unhinged cohorts (one of them Alls, the aforementioned best friend) the nervy crew of teenagers sets about to pull a heist that goes from a funny hypothetical to potential disaster real fast.  Not everyone can hold up under the pressure.  When the boys get caught, Grace hopes that she’ll be able to disappear from the town’s memory in Europe, but the two men get let out on parole right where the first chapter of Unbecoming begins.  We don’t know who Grace is afraid of, but she’s sure one of them will try to find her, and she desperately does not want to be found.

Grace’s morally ambiguous, totally conniving mind kept me racing to catch up with her every step of the way in this gripping but occasionally over-dramatic debut novel.  I don’t know if I liked Grace by the end of the book, but I was always interested to see what steps she would take to ensure her own security.  The best moments, in my opinion, were the ones in which the (anti?)heroine recognizes what sort of person would succeed in a situation, then takes careful internal steps to become that person.  The idyllic Graham house could have seemed too cloying had not their comfortable family scenes been shown through the lens of Grace’s intense desire to play a role in their daily life.  Grace’s introduction to the outlandish world of New York art students almost had me convinced that she was really an innocent country girl at heart, had she not then betrayed the only truly innocent country heart in the whole novel soon after.  Even in Paris, where I thought she was trying to become a better person, Grace – or Julie – has a really big trick up her sleeve.

The plot twists weren’t nearly so clever as those in The Goldfinch, which stopped my heart, but Unbecoming does have a plot that might appeal to fans of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer winner.  This is a much lighter book, without the deft touches of characterization, but there’s old stuff and plotting and best friends who make enemies superfluous. Plus, women being mysterious in Paris!  The differences between Garland – where everyone knew everyone, where Riley painted pictures of beloved buildings that the whole town called “art”, where Grace thought she would be a good wife in her favorite family – and Paris were jarring and nicely done.  I closed the book feeling a little annoyed at the note on which it ended, which was satisfying if not terribly thoughtful, but I also wished, at the end, that Grace had been able to experience Paris the way she dreamed she would: with her husband, loving the scenery, absorbing the art.

That’s not how unhappy women being mysterious in Paris end up, though.  Grace gets what she deserves, and I’ll admit that the person she becomes at the end of Unbecoming is much more her style – more glamorous, happily manipulative, and even more mysterious than before.

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up (contains torture and language)

I’m still recovering from the madness of the holidays; selling books at Christmastime doesn’t leave much brain- or will-power left at the end of the day for actually reading them. This will be a woefully shallow review, then, of a complex fantasy novel that I heartily enjoyed.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is Scott Lynch’s fun and smart addition to the world of big-ass fantasy books. Winter is the time for the Big Fantasy Novels waiting on your shelf. (Max Gladstone suggested as much in his nice article for The Book Smugglers here, so we know it’s true.) Perhaps the week before Christmas is not the best time to get embroiled in a 700-ish page chronicle of crime and religion and disguises and betrayal. Once I realized – about fifty pages in – that the twists and turns would be nagging at my mind for hours after each lunch break, it was too late to turn back.

In Scott Lynch’s rollicking and elaborate first installment of the Gentleman Bastard series, traditional fantasy meets the film “Casanova” meets The Count of Monte Cristo and even “The Sting.” Layer upon layer of cons and deceptions raise ever higher stakes in the expertly crafted plot, featuring a team of anti-heros who will steal your heart as they make off with all the money they can get their hands on.

The setting is reminiscent of Renaissance Italy – complete with extravagant mob bosses and descriptions of mouthwatering Mediterranean-style feasts. But it builds on a foundation of unknown, and possibly alien, origins that I’m anxious to learn more about as I continue reading the series. It’s not necessarily a pleasant city, though the rooftops owned by Camorr’s wealthiest citizens boast enchanted alchemical gardens, and the glass structures left over from before this era of men make for some impressive surroundings. The slums are horrifying and the upper crust festers just below their shining surfaces. Somewhere in between the grime and the glitz, the “Gentleman Bastards” steal from the rich and give to themselves, following the unscrupulous principles and meticulous training they received as wayward children.

Locke Lamora grew up on the streets of Camorr: an orphan with more guts than glory, trained up by the Thiefmaker from a very young age to cut purses and trick the gullible. His ambitious nature gets the better of him a few too many times, though, and the Thiefmaker sells the boy to Father Chainsthe “eyeless priest”, begging at his temple door – to get rid of this living liability. Father Chains is not the pious servant to the god Perelandro that he pretends to be for the benefit of generous passers-by, though. They are priests to the “nameless thirteenth” god: The Crooked Warden, Thiefwatcher and Father of Necessary Pretexts. (How great is that last title, eh?) Chains’s little band of bastards learns how to fake their way through the fanciest of dinner parties and fight their way through bad streets, all for one constant goal: relieving the dons and donas of their copious wealth.

Camorr has a duke, but he’s barely a side-note compared to the mafia-esque Barsavi family; the wealthy money-changer who has a hand in every deal; and the sinister branch of law enforcement known as the Spider. Locke and his friends swindle every single one of these powerful figures, and in doing so find themselves tangled up in more dangerous politics than they bargain for. The “Thorn of Camorr” might have all the best disguises and the self-confidence of a man twice his size, but the mysterious “Grey King” has taken an interest in their expert methods. By the time this first book shudders to an end, all the glory that goes along with each intricate con will be tainted and splattered with the trouble that the Grey King’s involvement brings to this family of friends.

The rough and winsome team of con men have to charm (or bludgeon) their ways out of some very sticky situations. Sticky with blood, expensive alcohol, fake-beard glue, and more blood. I had to speed-read through a few torturous scenes in Capa Barsavi’s floating fortress, and not only the pages about hungry sharks. The good humor that binds Locke, Jean, Bug, and the Sanza twins together is good for several laughs and frequent wry smiles, but this book is not a comedy. Senseless deaths happen, as they so often will in a fast and short life of crime. Bad men fortify their reputations with body parts. I’m easily grossed out, but the plot, characters, and world-building were good enough to keep me going through the nastier interludes.

On more than one occasion, I would flip back a few chapters to double check which name Locke was using, or which of the duke’s favorite dons was which. The names were a little hard to keep track of, and there are quite a lot of characters. But these complexities make the multiple deceptions all the more delicate, and therefore more exciting to watch as they unfurl and – sometimes – explode. The several hundred pages pass by quickly, because so many conflicts seem to involve a dangerously ticking clock, and Scott Lynch keeps the cogs turning at just the right pace. Locke and Jean’s past is revealed through short interludes interspersed throughout the immediate action, and I never wanted to leave either time line behind at the end of a section. Don’t tear through the story too fast, though, because even the conversations that don’t involve knives against anyone’s throat can be enlightening and entertaining. Irreverent repartee in the face of likely death never fails to make me smile, and the Gentlemen Bastards have a knack for it.

Also: strong bonds of friendship drive most of the book’s emotional impact, with no real romance to speak of. Hurrah! There are hints to Locke’s connection with an absent female member of the Bastards, and I’m hoping to read about her soon enough, but it’s all brotherly loyalty and family ties that cause the heartbreaks in The Lies of Locke Lamora.

I always keep an eye out for what sort of roles female characters fill in fantasy novels, and I have high hopes that Scott Lynch will continue to give his ladies the same capacity for both noble and self-serving actions as the characters he introduces here. I hear there are some rather swashbuckling dames in following books, and I can’t bloody wait. While none of the few main characters in this first offering were female, several major players in the plot were women of very varied morality and means. Educated alchemists, a bossy mafia daughter, and calculating old ladies – all as vivid as the ragtag group of men we follow most closely. Of course, the politics of a whore house had to be included, and I’m tired of whore houses in fantasy worlds, but at least these working folks got to take revenge on brutal men. And otherwise, I would say that Lynch is more in touch than many of his counterparts with the need for female characters of varied moralities and with diverse motivations. (I particularly like his response to a question on the subject here. Again, hurrah.)

I first came across Scott Lynch’s writing in the anthology Rogues, which I reviewed here. His short story was about a group of criminals who have to somehow steal an entire street, while a violent sorceress gleefully messes things up. It was a nifty story with characters I wanted to hang out with for a longer time. Now I want to spend more time with the Gentlemen Bastards, too. If the rest of his writing stands up to what I’ve read, then I’ll probably need to clear some shelf-space for the many pages full of heists, horrific mis-steps, friendship, and duplicity. I’m keen to read more, and look forward to a winter daydreaming about whatever scrape our not-quite-heroes need to get out of next.