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.

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Book Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up.  (Definitely not for anyone who isn’t in high school yet, as there’s sex and other grossness.  I would actually recommend this to a lot of twenty-somethings I know, as the characters are older and the writing fits in to the fast and easy grown-up fantasy genre.)

Does everyone remember how I feel about sharp and twisty fairy stories?  Before reading this review, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with my love for such triumphs of fairy world weirdness as The Darkest Part Of The Forest by Holly Black, Chime by Franny Billingsley, and especially any re-tellings of my all-time favorite ballad Tam Lin.  Be they magical worlds which entwine with ours or completely new fantasy realms, I get unreasonably excited whenever a story of fairy courts and immortal strife bleeps on my fae-dar.

And, yes, the main dude’s name is Tamlin in this book, but despite a few nods to that legend, it’s best to banish all expectations from that reference right out of your head before reading.  I’m learning that lesson again and again.  Sarah J. Maas has combined the structure of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale with the style of magic and characters most often found in Celtic faery legends like Tam Lin.  I actually found the Beauty and the Beast parallels to be more obvious, excluding the faery court drama and occasional references to Tamlin’s “heart of stone.”

A Court Of Thorns And Roses is set in a fairly typical fantasy world, with peasants and wolves and frightening borders. The village where we begin is small and winter-bound; while we don’t get much in the way of world-development for this first setting, the isolated townsfolk live in a way we can recognize from other such stories.  They’re on the border of Prythian, the faerie realm.  Feyre, our heroine, hunts for food in the dangerous woods to support her father and two sisters.  Aside the occasional tryst with a local boy, Feyre’s life is defined by cold, hunger, and frustration.  If it weren’t for a promise she made to her dying mother as a child, she would be completely justified in abandoning her lazy, demanding family and taking care of herself first.

This is the sort of story where promises are important, unbreakable rules in both moral and supernatural matters. When Feyre kills an unusual wolf with an ash arrow, she brings the wrath of a monstrous High Fae upon herself and her family.  To fulfill the Treaty between human kind and the faeries, Feyre must live out the rest of her days in Prythian, at the Spring Court with Tamlin.  It turns out that Tamlin does not always take the form of a beastly claws-and-teeth-creature.  He’s actually a decent fellow, though his manners as host aren’t very polite and he prefers to keep Feyre uninformed about so much of her new home. She also has no idea what his face looks like, since he and all other members of the court had masks cursed onto them permanently.  (Bummer.  But, rest assured, this is the sort of YA novel –alas – that makes it clear how the rest of him is very handsome and his face certainly will be, too.) The Spring Court isn’t a prison, though Feyre can never leave.  Some blight is draining faeries and High Fae alike of their powers, so she spends her time more as a neglected house guest, trying to piece together her host’s history and the state of Prythian on her own.

Exploring in the forest with Lucien, Tamlin’s haughty and flippant emissary, Feyre discovers just how sinister the faerie world can be.  What few details she can learn about the blight are disturbing enough, but the fear that some of these malevolent beings might cross the border into her village, bringing back the reign of cruel servitude once imposed by the ancient High Fae, is too dreadful to consider.  Her father and sisters may have been awful while she lived with them, but she will protect them at all costs.  So despite the comforts afforded by Tamlin’s estate and the marvels all around her, Feyre plans her escape, tries to take courage, and keeps her hunters instincts trained on everything – seen and unseen – around her.

As she finds out more about Tamlin’s home and the other courts, Feyre finds herself drawn into a dangerous and twisted game of personal politics. There are other High Fae who can be so gleefully evil, they make the violent specters in the woods look positively humane.  And her time with Tamlin has turned apprehension into rather devoted affection, so every hard choice threatens to break either her mind or her heart or both.

Whew, ok.  That’s a lot of plot-splaination, and I’ve barely even covered the basics.  A Court of Thorns and Roses has sort of a three-part story:

1) Feyre’s life with her family and her internment in Prythian.  Tamlin is awkward and Lucien is a bastard.

2) Adventures of the magical and frightening variety in The Spring Court.  Tamlin is romantic and Lucien is a #1 sarcastic bro.  All this love and togetherness is broken apart when Tamlin forces Feyre to flee to safety once faerie politics start getting seriously out of hand.

3) Meanie-pants Fae Queen tortures everyone for the laughs.  (Yeah, I didn’t even get to mention her in my long-as-hell summary up there.  But this is a faerie courts story, so naturally there needs to be a cruel and beautiful queen!  And wow is she a jerk.)  Feyre undergoes a series of miserable and hopeless tests for the evil court’s amusement, expecting to die, all in a desperate bid to save her true love.

I liked the first 1/3 of this novel a lot, enjoyed the middle bit with some reservations, and found nose wrinkling in disappointment a few times in the home stretch.   Feyre’s miserable life sets a great precedent for the marvels she will witness in Prythian.  Impoverished and under-appreciated, she might seem like a typical passive heroine, but her hunting skills and occasional ruthlessness gave me hope that she could be an active participant in whatever adventures awaited.  For the most part, Feyre is a realistic protagonist who makes solid decisions of both the brave and catastrophic variety.  One great little touch was her illiteracy: growing up poor and focused on getting enough food for the winter, she never learned how to read, and there are some scenes of embarrassed struggle in the library which proved her to be resourceful yet realistic.  I also liked how Feyre’s habit of painting tinged her view of all the new beauty around her, and how even in the most horrifying situations a “useless” part of her terrified brain would notice pretty details through the terror.  I was with Feyre for the ride until her love and devotion and general swoon-y attitude towards Tamlin made veer her towards hysteria and despair.  In fairness, the last part of the book contains a level of cruelty that would otherwise be unknown to our heroine, so I can understand why she clings to her love as one emotion she can trust.  I liked her fine in the beginning of the book, but despite acts of reckless bravery I found her change of personality rather jarring by the end.

Tam Lin himself didn’t do much for me.  (Too bad because Tam Lin from songs of yore is my faaave.)  He was a little too overtly Aloof And Terribly Sexy Despite The Matters Weighing Heavy On His Lordly Brow for my tastes, and I knew quite quickly that there would be some yearning and dark hallways and unlocked bedroom doors in his future with Feyre.   Since unlocked bedroom doors are extremely NOT my cup of tea, I kind of skimmed over most of those scenes, so you’ll have to ask someone else if they’re any good.  However, I did appreciate how his character was often preoccupied with the Very Faery Problems of broken promises and eternal grudges, and how desperately he wanted to preserve the lives of those faeries who existed with him in the Spring Court, despite the encroaching evil.  There are a few instances in which his sense of humor or fun attitude shine through from before Prythian started going to shit, and that’s when I understood Feyre’s devotion.  If only he weren’t so predictably smoldering.  If only we weren’t reminded too often that he can also transform into a beast and therefore has rather ferocious tendencies towards romance.  Just not my cup of tea.

And, though it pains me to admit this, the evil Fae Queen Amarantha was not that impressive.  Yes, she’s cold and beautiful and can hold a MEAN grudge, but she just felt like a bit of a stand in.  Her cruelty was appalling but lacked emotion.  Her challenges did fit in with the old tradition of riddles and mazes, but the glint of gleeful malice in her eyes were more told than shown, and more shown than felt.

The minor characters and settings were pretty great, actually.  Particularly Lucien and the few lesser faeries we meet at the Spring Court.  The foxy emissary (I mean it literally) is an expat from the Autumn court who throws Tam Lin’s nobility into needed relief by first being distrustful of Feyre’s presence, then by impelling her to develop a sense of humor and helping her sneak around behind Tamlin’s back sometimes.  Lucien can be impulsive and dangerous, but he’s exactly the sort of fellow you might expect to come from a land where the hum of Autumn energy is always in the air.  And, as I learned with a few tears threatening, his life before joining Tamlin was grim as heck.  His friendship with Feyre, as well as her interactions with the faery servants, were mostly rewarding.  If we ignore one handsome-but-evil High Fae who appears as a villain – a personality which I found to be entirely gratuitous and unnecessary, though he may redeem himself in future novels – the supporting characters were good additions to the lovely and menacing world Maas has created.

There’s a whole maze of unresolved issues and unexplained plot points by the end of this book, but I can see how any sequels will build off the most pressing of questions.  The wider world will probably make more sense as Feyre gets to understand it better.  I’m not a huge fan of series, usually, but will probably pick up the next one someday, because I liked the story enough to stay curious.

In the end, there was a lot to enjoy about Sarah J. Maas’s foray into faery stories.  Trading one life for another, ancient treaties and forgotten wars, a world divided by seasons and times: all good things.  Looking at A Court Of Thorns And Roses as a slight retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” I would call it mostly successful.  And it’s even a decent, though not awe-inspiring, opening to an original fantasy series.  My own qualms about all those sexy-times and incongruous characterizations may just be the picky bitching of a prude who has read too many faery legends.  Give the book a try if you like dangerous romance in cool fantasy worlds, tricky faery mischief that plays with mortal lives like they’re nothing but ants, and young people being put through a series of impossible tests by vindictive higher powers.

Short Review: The Isle of Youth by Laura Van Den Berg

This is just a tiny review excerpted from my blog post Birthday, Books, Bedtime over at The Bookshelf Pirate.  I read The Isle of Youth because it got some good press and I like having new short stories to recommend at the bookshop.  Now that it’s the holiday shopping frenzy, I find that collections and anthologies are getting popular as gifts.  Short story collections are often a little hit-or-miss for me, but I was intrigued by this unassuming little volume and bought it on a whim. The Isle of Youth is a collection of several short stories by Laura Van Den Berg, all of which tend to focus on displaced women struggling to understand how they relate to their surroundings and to the people in their lives.

Source.

Characters: *** 3/5 stars

Writing: *** 3/5 stars

Plots: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars out of 5, because some were great but others bored me.)

About half of the stories really interested me, while others slipped from my memory almost immediately.  The title story came at the very end of the collection and it was one of my favorites, probably because it was about a woman’s relationship with her volatile sister and I thought that the characters were entertaining and complex.  I find the dynamics between siblings and friends so much more interesting than romantic situations (or, in the case of The Isle of Youth, quiet romantic implosions and disasters).  The story “Lessons”, about a band of young bank robbers, was another favorite. In my opinion, there aren’t nearly enough stories about teenaged cousins and siblings on crime sprees!  That was another one which gave wacky backgrounds and intense motivations to a cast of characters, despite the short time we get to spend with them. I could have read a whole novel about that family.  I also enjoyed the dreary, beer-stained story about a girl who works unhappily with her mother in a cheap magic show.

Though some Van Den Berg’s pieces bled together into an indistinguishable examination of relationships and unspecified discontentment, certain details were vivid and fresh.  For example – and this was of particular interest to me though the story itself wasn’t one of my favorites – there was one which mostly took place in Antarctica, but one character had been kidnapped and held hostage in the very towns where I work/have worked.  It’s really unnerving to read a fictional account of a girl your age being snatched at knife point mere meters away from where you’re taking your lunch break.  So that was cool.  One story, which took place in Paris, started out slow but quickly grabbed my interest when acrobats and masquerades came into play.  Unfortunately, that particular story suffered from a rushed and inconclusive ending which snatched the magical feeling away in a puff of smoke.   There was a lot about marriage, siblings, memory, and ambiguous desires in The Isle Of Youth.  Very few of the endings gave us any solid resolutions, but that’s ok because the style was mostly realistic and real life rarely follows any sort of literary structure.  Occasionally, characters became too paralyzed by introspection to keep me interested – Van Den Berg’s ladies do like to wallow in their own thoughts – but that might be more a problem of personal preference.

I’d probably give The Isle of Youth 3/5 stars because the individual stories might do better in anthologies than in a collection all by the same author.  I got a little tired of their theme after a while and felt a little deflated while I was reading.  There’s no denying that Laura Van Den Berg is talented, though, and she clearly put a lot of thought into her characters and their situations.  Her writing digs into some deceptively simple parts of life to show how being an adult is confusing for everyone.  Reading these stories made me want to try being a little more understanding of the people I encounter every day.  The collection is not too long and the stories tend to be of easily digestible lengths.  It would be a good gift for someone who doesn’t have too much time to read but who likes to have meaningful conversations at parties, or with themselves.