Fict Myst Rebecca Scherm Unbecoming: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780143128311

Unbecoming: A Novel

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9780143128311: Unbecoming: A Novel

EDGAR AWARD NOMINEE FOR BEST FIRST NOVEL

“Startlingly inventive.” —The New York Times Book Review


A highly praised debut novel of psychological suspense about a daring art heist, a cat-and-mouse waiting game, and a small-town girl’s mesmerizing transformation

On the grubby outskirts of Paris, Grace restores bric-a-brac, mends teapots, and resets gems. She calls herself Julie, says she’s from California, and slips back to a rented room at night. In truth, home is Garland, Tennessee, where two young men have just been paroled. Both were jailed for a crime that Grace planned. The heist went bad—but not before she was on a plane to Prague, contraband in her bag. As Grace’s web of deception unravels, she begins a cat-and-mouse game that echoes the best of Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith and is sure to appeal to fans of The Girl on the Train.

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About the Author:

Rebecca Scherm is the critically acclaimed author of the novel Unbecoming. A graduate of New York University and the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan, Scherm has written for The New York TimesJezebel, and The Toast. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I

 

Paris

1

The first lie Grace had told Hanna was her name. “Bonjour, je m’appelle Julie,” Grace had said. She’d been in Paris for only a month, and her French was still new and stiff. She’d chosen the name Julie because it was sweet and easy on the French tongue—much more so than Grace was. The best lies were the simplest and made the most sense, in the mind and in the mouth. These lies were the easiest to swallow.

Jacqueline, the boss, had shown Grace to her worktable, abutting Hanna’s, and where to store her tools in the jars along the center crack, what she could borrow and what she would need to procure herself. Hanna had reached out to cover a jar of picks and pliers. “I don’t share these,” she’d said with a taut smile, like someone forced to apologize.

When Grace sat down on her spinning stool a few minutes later, Hanna asked where she was from. Grace was so obviously American.

“California,” Grace said, because most people already had ideas about California. They didn’t ask you to explain it to them. Grace hated lying, got no joy from it, and this was how she knew she wasn’t pathological. But California satisfied people so easily, even in Paris. Garland, Tennessee, where Grace was really from, was a confusing answer that only led to more questions. “Tennessee?” Hanna might have started. “Elvis? Péquenauds?” Hillbillies? When Grace had lived in New York, everyone who asked her where she was from followed her answer with the same question: “What’s that like?”

As if her journey from somewhere as tiny and undistinguished as Garland had required a laborious transformation. As if getting from Garland to New York City had been some kind of pilgrimage to the first world.

Grace had been in Paris for two years now, and she had been Julie from California since her arrival. Her life was conducted entirely in French, another kind of disguise. She and Hanna seldom discussed anything deep in the past, and when the conversation took an unwelcome turn, they quickly righted themselves. Facing each other across their tables, they hunched over their antiques and talked of busted hinges and gouged veneer, not sorrow or worry, not home.

The boys would be paroled tomorrow, released from Lacombe and sent home to Garland with their families. It was three o’clock in Paris now, morning in Tennessee. Riley and Alls would be eating their last breakfast of powdered eggs and sausage patties, doughy-faced guards planted behind them. Grace had always imagined them together, but she’d begun to imagine their lives without her so long ago that she often forgot how little she really knew. She didn’t know a thing about their lives anymore. She hadn’t spoken to them in more than three years, since before they were arrested for robbing the Wynne House: three years of imagined sausage breakfasts.

He wouldn’t come for her, she told herself. It had been too long.

Grace had often felt like two people, always at odds, but when the boys had gone to prison, one Grace had stopped her life’s clock. Now it had begun to tick again. She had no control of Riley now, what he would do and where he would go, and these unknowns bred in her a private, shapeless dread. She’d left lies unleashed in Garland and now she couldn’t mind them.

Riley and Alls were twenty years old when they were sentenced to eight years each in Lacombe. This was the minimum: it was their first offense, they were unarmed, and, more important to Judge Meyer, they were “not your typical criminals,” and Riley’s family was a nice family. The Grahams had lived in Garland for seven generations, and Alls benefitted from the association—as had Grace, when she’d been associated. Grace often thought that if Alls alone had been charged with the crime, he would not have gotten off as easy, and that if only Riley had been charged, he probably would have gotten off altogether. Greg had pled guilty too, but his parents had won him a plea bargain for turning in his friends. He was released in a year.

Grace had robbed the Wynne House too, and she could not go home again.

She remembered the moment—maybe it had lasted minutes or maybe days; she didn’t remember—after the judge had handed down the eight-year sentence, but before she’d learned that they could be paroled in only three. Eight years had seemed an incredible length of time. Eight years was longer than she had known Riley. Eight years seemed long enough for everyone to forget.

She gave the birdcage’s latch a final swipe with the chamois and called for Jacqueline. The filigree onion dome alone had taken her nine days to clean. The wire metalwork was so fine that from a distance, it might have been human hair. On the first day, she’d held the vacuum hose in her left hand and the hair dryer in her right, blowing off dust and sucking it up before it could land again. Then she’d spent more than a week swabbing the curlicues with dental tools wrapped in cotton and paintbrushes dipped in mineral spirits. This morning she’d finished scraping off centuries of songbird guano from the cage’s floor. It wasn’t a birdcage anymore, but a gilded aviary, orientaliste, late nineteenth century, nearly as tall as Grace was. Jacqueline would return it to the dealer who had purchased it from the flea market, and he would sell it for at least five thousand, maybe much more. Perhaps it would be wired for electricity and made into a chandelier. Maybe an orchid collector would use it to shield his best specimens from human hovering.

When Jacqueline emerged from her skinny office beneath the stairs, Grace stood apart from her work. She waited as her boss pulled a pair of white cotton gloves from the bin next to the tables. Jacqueline ran her gloved index finger lightly along the wires. She gently turned the latch on the door and bent close to listen to its movement. She craned to see the underside of the onion dome.

“Ça suffit,” she said.

That was as approving as Jacqueline got. She did little restoration herself, only the most basic things—regluing a horn handle to a letter opener, or cleaning larger metalwork—and only what she could do while on the phone. Now she clacked over to Amaury’s dark alcove, where he was slumped over an open watch. After decades in exactly that position, his shoulders had slid into his belly. Jacqueline reached for the watch, but Amaury grunted and swatted her hand away. He’d been at Zanuso et Filles the longest. He’d even worked for the original Zanuso, back when Jacqueline and her sister were the filles. Jacqueline had neither the head nor the hands for antiques restoration, but she was the senior Zanuso now. Grace supposed that made her and Hanna the filles.

Hanna cleared her throat, eager for their boss’s attention. Last week she’d begun a new project, and now she wanted to show off her progress.

“C’est parti,” Jacqueline said, squeezing the bridge of her nose. “Yes, Hanna?”

“My beaded centerpiece is Czech, 1750 to 1770,” Hanna said, though they all knew by now. “I will have it to the decade by the end of the week.”

Hanna was sitting in front of the shared computer, clicking through the hundreds of photographs she’d taken of her project. The centerpiece was the size of a card table and divided into four quadrants, each containing beaded miniatures of flora and fauna: spring blossoms, a summer peach orchard, an autumn crop harvest, and a snowy thicket with white wool sheep and shepherdesses. The centerpiece had clearly once been exquisite, if silly. Grace imagined it as a diorama that some young countess had hired palace artists to build for her. The trees, their leaves made of cut silk, were as detailed as real bonsai.

“The materials,” Hanna continued, “are linen and pinewood, glass, mica, copper, brass, steel, lead, tin, aluminum, beeswax, shellac, white lead, paper, and plaster of Paris. I have disassembled and numbered it into 832 parts, each corresponding to this diagram. You will see how the glass beads have been discolored by oil, no doubt applied by someone with limited knowledge of the period.”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “Julie will help you with this one. It’s a very big job.”

“I don’t want any help.”

Jacqueline put her finger to her lips. “Until something else comes in for her to do, she will assist you.”

“You’ll have to measure all the old wires,” Hanna said to Grace. “The new ones will be steel, which won’t be historically correct, of course, but my primary objective is to preserve the integrity of the object’s intention.”

“Which is to be a centerpiece,” Grace said.

“Precisely.”

Hanna was Polish, thirty-four, twelve years older than Grace, whom she treated like an unexpected and unwanted little sister. Hanna was small and as thin as a young boy, with closely cropped blond hair and blond skin and pale gray eyes. Her crisp androgyny was so thorough that it sometimes distracted older Parisians, who wanted to peg her as one sex or the other before selling her a sandwich. “Sans fromage,” Hanna would say. “Pardon?” they would respond, still looking for clues. “Sans fromage, pas de fromage,” she would repeat, blinking, her frame as straight and pert as a parking meter. She wore silver-rimmed glasses and clothes only in shades of beige.

When Grace had started at Zanuso, she’d hoped that her humble beginnings would appeal to Hanna’s arrogance, which had been obvious from the start. She’d thought maybe Hanna would help her, out of either pity or some sense of big-sister altruism. But Hanna had no such inclinations. She was one of six daughters of a rural Polish grocer and she hadn’t seen her family in more than a decade. No one, Grace gathered, had ever helped Hanna do a goddamn thing. Grace and Hanna’s friendship was an often crabby by-product of professional respect: Grace had done well at Zanuso without asking for help, and that Hanna noticed. Grace envied Hanna’s unfiltered confidence, her clipped and precise judgments. Grace struggled to calculate the probable reactions to nearly everything she said before she said it, looking for risk and reward and hidden pits she might trip in. She’d never met a woman who cared so little about causing offense.

Now Grace pulled her stool around to Hanna’s table, where a long row of wires was arranged by size. She pulled a ruler from Hanna’s cup and saw Hanna flinch a little. She would have preferred that Grace use her own tools. Grace took the first of the hundred wires, set it against the ruler, and recorded the measurement on the list Hanna had laid out on a sheet of graph paper. Nineteen centimeters. She placed the wire back in the row, just to the left so she wouldn’t accidentally measure it again, and picked up another. Eighteen and three-quarters centimeters.

 • • • 

Grace had met Riley when she was in sixth grade, just turned twelve. He was a year older. At her first middle school dance, he had plucked her from a gaggle of girls she wanted badly to impress, and she and Riley had swayed, arm’s length apart, to the ballad over the loudspeaker. He’d invited her to his house for dinner, where Mrs. Graham gently chatted to Grace about school while her husband and four sons stripped three roast chickens in ten minutes. Riley, the youngest, was the worst, lunging for the last of the potatoes while Grace was still figuring out how to cut her chicken breast with her fork and not make so much noise against the plate. Mrs. Graham reached to still Riley’s hand and suggested he save seconds for his friend before he helped himself to thirds. “Some chivalry, please,” she had said. Grace had read the word in books, but she’d never heard anyone say it out loud.

Grace tried not to stare at her, but Mrs. Graham pulled at her attention whenever Grace looked away. Mrs. Graham was thin and tan and freckled, with sleepy green eyes that turned down slightly at the outside. She had a slow blink; Grace thought she could feel it herself, as though a light had briefly dimmed. Her cool, feathery brown hair curled under where it hit her collar. Grace admired the light shimmer on her high cheekbones, her sea-glass earrings, her low and tender voice. Her fingers were long and delicate, nails polished with a milky, translucent pink, knuckles unfairly swollen from arthritis. That Grace’s own nails were bitten to the quick had never bothered her before.

At the end of the week, Riley had kissed her in the school hallway between bells, so quickly that she wondered later if she had imagined it. Within a month he had bought her a necklace, a gold dolphin on a thin chain, and pledged his love. She felt as if she were in the movies.

What she wouldn’t give to see herself and Riley like that, from above—to watch a flickering reel of Riley, his hair still victory red (it hadn’t yet begun to fade), pulling her toward him on the sweaty, squeaking floor of the gym. Had she been scared, excited, smug? She’d been just a child, and then she had entered a we. An us-ness. She and Riley had seemed cute to his parents and their teachers, something from Our Gang, but Riley had three older brothers and the precocity that came with them, and Grace had no one else.

Tomorrow, Riley and Alls would be released.

She felt as if she had been standing in a road at night, watching a car’s distant headlights approaching so slowly that she had forever to step out of the way. Now the car was upon her, and still she had not moved. She imagined what tomorrow would look like: Riley’s parents, or maybe just his father, going to pick him up at the prison. Dr. Graham would bring him a change of clothes. Riley had worn a thirty-two-thirty-two. Did he still? He would look different. He would be paler, less freckled, from lack of sun. And he would be older, of course. Twenty-three. She kept thinking of them as boys, but they weren’t boys anymore.

Dr. Graham would bring Riley’s old clothes, a pair of worn khakis and one of his paint-stained button-downs with holes in the elbows. Here, the bundle of clothes would say, this is who you were and will be again. Grace imagined Riley riding home in the passenger seat of the Grahams’ ancient blue Mercedes wagon, the diesel loud enough to bring the neighbors to the windows. Everyone would know today was the day. Mrs. Graham would have made barbecue, probably pork shoulder. And Riley’s brothers would be there. Grace didn’t know if all three still lived in Garland, but they probably did. The Grahams belonged to Garland as much as Garland belonged to them. She imagined Riley excusing himself from the cookout and going inside to sit on his bed in his old bedroom, which would be his room again, at least for a while. She wondered if he would go upstairs, to the attic bedroom Mrs. Graham had made up for when Grace stayed over.

Where would Alls go tomorrow? Did his father still live in Garland? He would have no welcome-home party. She imagined Alls and his dad driving through Burger King on the way home, unless he went home with Riley. He would have, before, but that meant nothing. The line between before and after couldn’t be sharper.

When people had read about the Wynne robbery as a footnote in a national newspaper, small-town folly picked up on the wire, they’d probably laughed or shaken their heads. Listen to this one, millions of people would have said over the breakfast table. But those stupid boys had been Grace’s. She used to think she knew Riley so well, she could peel off his skin and slip it over hers and no one would ever be the wiser.

They had gone to prison because of her, really. Grace longed to tell someone what she had done. She’d never had...

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