by Rebecca Scherm


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“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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143128311
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 458,810
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

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.

Read an Excerpt




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.


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 friends, just Riley and now Hanna. Grace could have only one friend at a time. Any more and it became harder to keep track of how they knew her, what she had told them, which pieces went where.

 • • • 

She had not been in Garland the day of the Wynne robbery. She was already in Prague then, at a summer study abroad program. Riley had paid for her tuition and ticket; Grace didn’t have that kind of money.

Grace had read of the robbery online the night it happened, on the home page of the Albemarle Record’s website: A young white male had entered the main house of the Josephus Wynne Historic Estate, in Garland, Tennessee, on Tuesday, June 2, between eight and ten in the morning, and locked the docent in an upstairs bedroom. The groundskeeper was found unconscious in the foyer; he was at Albemarle Hospital in critical condition.

She had not heard from Riley since the day before, but she knew he had done it. Four days later, he, Alls, and Greg were arrested in Tennessee. Greg was first, alone at his parents’ cabin on Norris Lake. Hours later Alls and Riley were arrested at the boys’ rental house on Orange Street, where Grace also had lived, until she went to Prague at the end of May. She was sure that Greg had turned them in.

She received just one call from the police, after the arrest. The front desk matron sent her son, a dull-eyed boy of about eleven, to knock on the door of Grace’s shared dorm room. She followed him downstairs, her heart beating so heavily that her chest cramped.

The American detective asked if she knew why he was calling. She said she did. He asked her to tell him. She said that her boyfriend had been accused of robbing the Wynne House.

“You mean your husband,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. She and Riley had never told anyone they had married.

He asked when she had last communicated with Riley. “A few days ago,” she said. “Five days. He e-mailed me, very normal, nothing strange. He said he was going to his friend’s house, on Norris Lake. He couldn’t have robbed the Wynne House.”

“How did you find out about the robbery?”

“I read it in the paper,” she said. “Online.”

“You’re reading the local paper while you’re in Prague?”

“I’ve been homesick.”

“You didn’t talk to your husband at all after you heard about the robbery?”

She had not. She told the detective that she knew Riley wouldn’t e-mail her from the lake. They always started drinking before they unhitched the boat, and they only dried out when it was time to drive home. Grace herself had just taken a trip to Kutná Hora, to the bone church underground, where the bones of fifty thousand people had been strung into altars and chandeliers by a half-blind monk. The bones belonged to victims of the Black Death and the Hussite Wars. That some idiot had stolen Josephus Wynne’s old silverware didn’t seem very important, she told the detective.

She shut up—too much.

He asked her half a dozen more questions, but they weren’t difficult ones. Grace told him that he’d made a mistake, that Riley could not have done that. He has such a good life, she said. We’re happy. He doesn’t need money. His parents help him. And besides, she said, I would have known. He couldn’t have kept anything like that from me. He tells me everything. Everything.

Perhaps the detective was a man whose own wife believed that he told her everything.

What the detective did not tell Grace, what she learned days later in the news, was that Riley, Alls, and Greg had already confessed. The detective was crossing off his to-do list. He’d needed nothing from her.

 • • • 

This was how she imagined the robbery: Riley slipping a sweaty five-dollar bill into the recommended donation box and smiling at the tiny old docent on duty, following her through the downstairs rooms as she recited footnotes of Tennessee history. Riley had been through the house half a dozen times over the years; they all had. The Wynne House was the closest and cheapest school field trip. But on a summer Tuesday, the place was dead.

He stopped hearing the docent’s voice clearly, as though he were underwater. He followed her upstairs. Her legs, ninety and blue and veiny in her whitish stockings, shook less than his did. At the top of the stairs she turned back and moved her mouth, looked at him expectantly. A question? She had asked him a question.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yes, ma’am.” He hoped it was the right answer.

He followed her from room to room, nodding and scrawling gibberish in his notebook. Outside the door to the tiny windowless study, he rolled his notebook and stuck it and his pen in his baggy front pocket. She opened the door outward and he followed her inside. He pointed with a trembling finger at the tiny print over the toilet table.

“Can you tell me who the artist is who made that?”

“That one? I don’t remember. Let me get a better look.”

She stepped forward and peered at the signature, which he already knew to be indecipherable. He held his breath and tried to back quietly out of the room. The edge of the rug caught under his heel and he stumbled.

She turned around. “Are you all right, hon?”

He jerked his foot free and made for the door, slamming it behind him. He grabbed the ladder-back chair that sat next to the door and wedged the top rung under the doorknob. He breathed.

Now that she was safely penned, he could hear her voice leaking under the door. Not screaming. Asking. She was asking again, something; he didn’t know what—just the sensation of her tinny voice from far away, like a house cat trapped in a basement.

He went downstairs and opened the front door. Alls and Greg came in quietly with scrunched-up nylon grocery bags and three pairs of gloves. They dispersed into the rooms, filling their bags with needlework samplers, old desk clocks, a silver-hilted hunting knife. They had a carefully made list of treasures: nothing large or cumbersome, nothing one of a kind. They did not expect the front door to open. A man they had never seen before stepped in with a garbage bag to empty the small wastebasket by the door. He was the groundskeeper, and he always came on Mondays, never Tuesdays. But here he was, seeing them.

The groundskeeper, who was past seventy, fell to the floor.

The boys grabbed the bags they had filled and fled.

 • • • 

Because the groundskeeper was too long returning to the mobile home that served as the Wynne House’s office, where he was supposed to leave his keys, the administrator who worked there came out looking for him. She found him sprawled on the foyer floor, and then she heard the warbling cries of the docent, still locked in the windowless upstairs study.

The prosecutor later said that the boys had intended to fence the goods in New York, but they had not even left the state. Grace watched the headlines change from her concrete dorm room in Prague: NO SUSPECTS IN WYNNE HEIST; WITNESS SUFFERED STROKE AT SCENE; GROUNDSKEEPER’S CONDITION STILL CRITICAL. There was a police sketch from the docent’s nearsighted description, but Grace was relieved to see that the drawing looked nothing like Riley. It could have been anyone, really.

Grace knew that Riley would worry about the groundskeeper. She could imagine him pacing, holding his fist against his mouth. That the man could die would have shaken Riley from his fantasy: the rakish glamour of a small-town antiques heist by a gang of wild boys, an intricate prank. But they had scared an old man to near-death. If he lived, he would surely identify them. But if he died, was that manslaughter? Could they call it murder, even? Grace imagined Riley’s spinning thoughts as though they were her own.

She was right to be worried. When the police found a suspect in Gregory Kimbrough, twenty, of Garland, Greg’s parents said that was impossible because he had been at the family cabin on Norris Lake for the past several days. There was one cell phone with network activity on the Wynne property at the time, the police told them, and it’s yours.

Grace hadn’t even known they could do that.

He’d probably been checking a sports score or something.

The police took the Kimbroughs into custody too, as the phone was technically theirs, and drove to the cabin with Greg’s parents in the backseat. Mr. Kimbrough was a criminal defense attorney. Greg wouldn’t have an opportunity to say anything without a lawyer present. At his parents’ urging, Greg rolled like a puppy. Alls and Riley were arrested hours later.

Grace watched the Wynne case through the foggy pinhole of the Albemarle Record and its local correspondent’s maddeningly elliptical reporting. Cy Helmers had been three years ahead of the boys in school and four ahead of her. He’d gone to Garland College and become the county paper’s cub reporter when he graduated. He reported the Wynne heist as if he were above gossip, as if he couldn’t stand to make his old schoolmates look worse than they already did.

The Czech front desk matron sent her son to fetch Grace twice more. No other student had received a phone call, and Grace felt conspicuous and exposed as she conducted these conversations, despite the fact that the woman spoke no English. There was a plastic window over the counter, through which students passing through the lobby could see her. Grace faced the wall.

The second phone call was from Grace’s mother, whose very voice seemed to go pale when Grace said that no, she would not come back in time for the sentencing; no, she did not know when she would come back at all. Her mother, whose maternal passions were seldom if ever directed at Grace, now implored her: How could she just abandon Riley like this?

“Abandon him?” Grace was incredulous on the line. “The person I built my life on, the last decade and my entire future, the one and only person I can call mine”—this was a dig—“just committed a whole parade of felonies with his idiot friends. And you think I should come home to support him?” She was shaking when she finished. Her mother had little to say after that.

The third and last call was from Riley’s father.

The boys had been released into their families’ custody, awaiting sentencing. It was evening in Prague, morning in Tennessee, and Dr. Graham was calling from his office at the college.

“I think I understand,” he began, “why you would not want to come back for this.”

Grace had nothing to say. It had not occurred to her that he would call. “I can’t believe this is happening,” she said. A truth.

“Us too. And him. He may be having the hardest time believing it.”

“I don’t think he knew what he was really doing,” she said. “He couldn’t have. People make mistakes without realizing—one bad decision can just carry you away. And the three of them together. You know.”

“We should have checked him more,” Dr. Graham said quietly. “I guess you seemed to keep him in line enough.” He laughed, a little drily. “Grace, you know we love you as our daughter.”

They had said this for years: not likea daughter but asour daughter, and Grace had bloomed under those words and their power to make her one of them. But it was Dr. Graham calling her, not Mrs. Graham, and he was calling her from his office, not from their home.

Grace remembered shooting skeet with the Grahams when she was fifteen, her first time. She had done well, as well as Riley and his brothers, and Dr. Graham had laughed with surprise and delight. “Goddammit, son,” he had said to Riley. “You’ll never do better.”

“If there’s anything you know that could help him,” he said now, “anything at all—”

“I’m sorry you’re going through this,” Grace said.

 • • • 

Grace did not call. She did not write. Just before they went to Lacombe, she received a single letter from Garland.

Dear Grace,



She never knew whether to read it as an indictment of her silence or a promise of his.

What he must think of her, what his family must think of her—what they must say. She hated to think about it. She worried less about what Alls thought of her now. He had known long before Riley how bad Grace could really be.


Grace knew that a parolee had a keeper and a leash. They didn’t know where she was; they couldn’t. She knew these things, but that night, as she twisted under her sheet, her brain refused them. She took a sleeping pill at two but failed to submit. The night brain knew every trick.

What did she think, that Riley would murder her? That he was tracking her so he could throw lye in her face? Hanna had told her that story, from New York half a century ago. A man, Burt Pugach, had hired hit men to throw lye into the face of Linda Riss, his girlfriend, after she told him she wouldn’t see him anymore. He told her, “If I can’t have you, no one else will have you, and when I get through with you, no one else will want you.” He went to prison for fourteen years, and he wrote her thousands of letters. He had blinded her in one eye. When he was released from prison, she married him.

It was the happy ending that most troubled Grace.

Tomorrow they’ll be out, the night brain taunted her. She took another pill at four and begged for defeat. She went down at six and slept through her alarm.

When Grace got to work the next morning, Jacqueline was on the phone in her office, picking at her cuticles and blowing smoke from the side of her mouth, her door wide open. Amaury was already stooped in his dark corner, cooing at the pocket watch under his yellow lamplight. His table was as far as possible from the basement studio’s high windows and the meager sunlight they let in from the narrow street. As far as Grace could tell, he lived his life underground: in this basement, on the metro, and in his basement apartment in Montreuil. Grace had seen him getting off the metro in the morning, blinking unhappily in the sun.

Hanna had tied a white smock over her clothes. She’d lined up Grace’s worktable end-to-end with the two extra tables that were left over from better times, when there had been more work and more staff. Grace counted ten bowls and containers arranged along the tables, largest to smallest.

“Tu es en retard,” Hanna scolded her. Hanna was never late, and her hands were never still. Whenever she and Grace had lunch together, Hanna bobbed her knee as she ate, always impatient to get back to work. “Are you ready?”

“As ever,” Grace said, tying a smock over her own clothes.

“I didn’t want to start and then have to stop again to explain it to you.”

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Grace said. “The train was late.”

“We’re cleaning the beads. As you know, they’ve discolored from someone’s shortsighted application of oil to their surface. But, as with hair spray or nail polish, this has only damaged them.” She looked at Grace from the side, through the gap between her face and her eyeglasses, and Grace ran her thumb over her own clear-polished fingernails.

She and Hanna seldom worked on a project together. Until recently, there had been enough to do so that they each stayed late, piecing parts back together and buffing out scratches in satisfying silence. But Grace hadn’t gotten anything after the birdcage, and she knew to worry. Jobs like this one were few and far between, and without a visa? She’d gotten lucky. If she were let go, she’d be a hotel maid again.

Hanna raised her chin toward the repurposed chafing dish at the end of the table. “Container one,” she said. Hundreds of tiny dark beads were sunk in turpentine like coffee grounds, the dirty oil clouding around them. “Those have been soaking overnight.”

“How late were you here?” Grace asked. Hanna’s eyes were as red rimmed as her own.

“One, maybe half past,” Hanna said. “Use the ceramic spoon to stir them around a bit, very gently, not breaking a single one. Then you will gently sieve them out, about fifty at a time, into container two.” She pointed to the large metal mixing bowl next to the chafing dish. “Move the beads into the clean turpentine, clean the sieve, and begin again, moving the beads to container three. Four through six contain a castile soap solution, and seven through ten are water. There will be at least a dozen batches of beads like this to move through the system.”

Hanna looked at Grace as though she were leaving her child in Grace’s care. “I know I don’t have to tell you how vital it is that you clean the sieve between each container, and especially between each solution.” Her pale eyes glowed brighter against the bloodshot. “Yes?”

Jacqueline trusted Grace to regild and re-leaf holy relics. Once, she had called Grace her “little spider,” and Grace, disturbed by the comparison, turned to Hanna to laugh about it and found her pink with jealousy. It didn’t matter that neither Grace nor Hanna had any great respect for Jacqueline—Hanna still needed to be the best.

“Yes,” Grace said now, smoothing her flyaways.

“I’ll perform the hand cleaning,” Hanna said. Her own table was set with a paper-lined tray of paintbrushes and magnifiers arranged like dental tools. “I’ll begin when you make it to container seven. Until then, I will be constructing a sheep out of wool to replace this one with the cracked neck.” She gave a dainty smile, showing her small, square teeth, and opened her palm to reveal what looked like a balled-up tissue held in a sweaty hand for two hundred years. The sheep’s barely discernible ears were suggestions cut from felt, smashed flat. Only two legs remained, scabby sticks protruding from dirty gray stuffing.

“Sad little fellow,” Hanna said, not concealing her glee. “No use rehabbing him. I’ll have to start from scratch!”

Grace bent over the chafing dish of turpentine. The smell reminded her of Riley, but she hardly needed reminding. The Record had reported that he had been drawing some in prison, what Cy Helmers had called “charcoal lines and squiggles.” Grace had winced at “squiggles,” but Cy Helmers hadn’t meant to become an art critic. Grace wished that she could see the drawings herself; they would help her understand Riley’s state of mind. What kinds of squiggles? Anxious like Twombly’s, dancing and light like Hockney’s swimming pools, or lightless and grim like Fautrier’s? Grace didn’t know whether to blame herself or Riley for the fact that she could think of his artwork only in terms of copies, of either real artists or real objects or real life—what was the difference? But she blamed Cy Helmers for his poor descriptive abilities. “Squiggles” could mean anything.

That the drawings were at all abstract was at first a wonder to Grace. Riley had always been an insistent realist, painting the historic buildings around town. His father used to refer to their house as the Garland Visitor’s Bureau. Grace had tried to push him toward abstraction, or at least pull him away from Garland, to no avail. Maybe he’d changed his style because in prison there were no historic homes to observe. More likely, he didn’t want to show off anymore.

He’d never painted his family’s own house. He said it was too familiar. His family’s house was far more special to her than it was to him, she knew.

 • • • 

Grace was not a Garland native. She’d been born in Louisville, Kentucky. Her mother was eighteen, her father nineteen. They’d met at a party after a Van Halen concert, Grace’s father once told her, but such details were rare. Her parents were unwilling to discuss anything before their marriage, before Garland, as though Grace had been a witness they’d expected to remain silent.

Her father’s parents had taken care of her until she was three, while her father was in college and her mother was somewhere else. She’d never been told where.

After that, Grace lived for varying stretches, some repeating, in North Carolina with her aunt Regina and her kids; in Smyrna with her father, after he dropped out of Tennessee State and took a job at the Nissan plant; in Paducah, Kentucky, with her mother and two other young women who, it turned out, were not willing to babysit their roommate’s kid when she was kept late at work; in Memphis, briefly, when her father was married to a woman named Irene who had bald eyebrows and made Grace spaghetti sandwiches before her bartending shifts; outside Chattanooga with her mother and an older man named Alan, who wore collared shirts tucked into chinos every day and had two grown children who did not seem to like Grace or her mother very much; and in Ocean City, Maryland, where Grace’s mother was waitressing when Grace’s father came up for the season to try to talk to her and make things right.

Her father came in June, and by August, Grace’s mother was pregnant. Her parents married and, together for the first time, they all marched back south to Garland. Grace was nine. She started fourth grade two weeks late and newly legitimate. When the teacher introduced her, Grace looked out from under her dark bangs and felt a thrill that not one of them knew who she had ever been before.

Grace’s family moved into a small white-sided ranch house behind the grocery store. Her mother planted white begonias in circles around the two small trees in the yard, and her father surrounded them with dyed-red mulch, which Grace noticed as soon as she noticed that the people in Garland’s nicer neighborhoods used mulch that was brown or black.

The house was nearly silent at first. The three of them had no idea how to interact. Any two people could be talking in a room, but when the third entered, the conversation would fall apart, all parties self-conscious and suddenly overwhelmed. Grace had always read a lot, and she’d seen so many adult faces slacken with relief when they found her engrossed in a book or a magazine, as though she had unintentionally absented herself from whatever forgotten carpool pickup line or tense phone call was in the background. Now she disappeared into her books again, hoping to ease the pressure on her parents, who even she could see were struggling to play the roles they had finally submitted to. She’d spent long stretches of her childhood in fictional worlds, and trapped in this new and uneasy diorama, what was real and what wasn’t began to seem uncertain. When Grace found a box of her father’s secret detritus in the basement that included several photos of Irene, she was relieved to see that she had not imagined that whole episode, among others.

Then the twins were born, identical colicky boys who absorbed her parents in family life completely. Her mother and father adored Aiden and Dryden—their names, aspirational and slant rhymed, embarrassed her before she knew why—with such obvious passion, imagining their thoughts and desires and fears before the boys could speak them. Her parents loved their baby boys in a way that even they had not expected. Grace had been practice for them, she concluded. She hadn’t realized she was lonely until she began to understand that other people were not. Then she met Riley, and he brought her home to the Grahams.

The Grahams lived in a pale-blue-painted brick house on Heathcliff with a giant hemlock tree in the front yard. The tree was at least three stories tall, though it looked like ten when Grace and Riley were children. They climbed up the sap-sticky branches as if these were spiral stairs in an empty tower, until they got so high up the slender trunk that they could see the single green flipper at the bottom of the Monahans’ leaf-addled swimming pool, they could peer into the skylight in the Wagners’ bathroom, and they could feel the trunk swaying beneath them. Grace would wrap her body tightly around it, a death grip of spindly arms, looking out and looking over, never down. And then Riley would climb a little higher.

They kissed in the tree and on the rooftops, shortcut around the neighborhood by hopping from eave to eave. They lay out on the asphalt shingles in the summer, their fingers crooked in each other’s waistbands, making out and burning in the sun. They skinny-dipped in the Monahans’ swimming pool when the Monahans went on vacation and paid Riley five dollars a day to take care of their cats. Grace slept at home but otherwise lived at the Grahams’ as best she could. Often their neighbors would forget that she didn’t live there. She babysat their children and patronized their lemonade stands, and everywhere Riley was, she was too.

Even now, Grace could go back into these memories so completely that she was shocked when a noise, a voice, a heel on the pavement shook her out of the dream.

Garland had one high school and one art teacher. Mr. Milburn thought himself a backwoods talent scout, shaping young genius for what he called “the big leagues.” “Don’t forget us when you’re famous!” he crowed to Riley, clutching his forearm. Riley was a splendid draftsman who could draw from life in the way that seems like magic to those who can’t: still lifes of softening bananas with frayed stems and collapsing brown bruises, used tissues, messy garages, sleeping grandparents. She tried not to envy him. Grace had no talents of her own, but her attachment to Riley was its own kind of talent, wasn’t it? She had a gift for pleasing him, and so his talent seemed to extend to her, like warmth.

Since the arrest, Grace had remade her life alone, administering now to objects: teapots too delicate for the stove, chairs too fragile to sit in. At night she went home to the far reaches of Bagnolet. She got off the metro at Gallieni, the end of the line, and picked up a bus to the end of its line. From there it was a kilometer up and around the hill to her flat. She rented a row house’s upstairs floor, a small bedroom and bath, from an Austrian nurse in her sixties. Mme Freindametz claimed to feel more at home in the hospital where she worked. She had a little bunk, she’d explained to Grace, in the wing for night nurses.

Mme Freindametz kept no family photos in the house and almost no personal effects, except for an embroidered pillow that looked too loved to be anything but a family heirloom, and one wooden spoon so warped and burnt that it surely would have been tossed out long ago if it didn’t have sentimental value. Grace was careful not to touch these things in front of Mme Freindametz. But Grace had few effects from her old life anymore, and so sometimes she would run her fingers down the length of the spoon’s handle, ease her thumbnail into the split in the wood, and almost feel like it meant something to her.

 • • • 

At four o’clock, the turpentine in the chafing dish had turned the color of olive brine. The liquid lightened from bowl to bowl as the solution became less polluted, and the two rightmost bowls were clear of even the slightest film. She laid the first four batches of beads out on linen towels to dry. It was ten o’clock in the morning in Garland. Their day had only begun.

Grace had not spoken to anyone in her family since her mother’s single phone call to Prague more than three years ago. She sent them e-mails every couple of months so her parents would have enough to say should anyone ask after Grace in the grocery store. Grace could never tell her mother where she really was. The chain back to Riley was always too short. In Grace’s e-mails, she lived in Melbourne, Australia, and worked as a marketing assistant for a nylon luggage company. Travel to Garland was much too expensive, a handy excuse for them and for anyone who asked when they would next see their daughter, but Australia was also white and so, to them, safe, preventing inquiries about sex slavery, civil war, or drinking water.

Believing her was their choice. She had given them a gift in tidily constructing a busy, happy life on the other side of the world. Her parents could have pressed her about phone cards and webcams, but they didn’t.

For a while after the boys’ arrests, Grace’s mother had sent regular updates on Riley’s case. Grace was confused by this interest, which seemed out of nowhere. Her parents had never paid any special attention to Riley before, or even to her. But when Riley was sentenced and still Grace did not come home, did not write or call the Grahams, and ignored any mention of Riley in her responses to her mother’s e-mails, their exchanges made the necessary transition into small talk. Grace knew they thought she was heartless.

Privately, she had scoured the web for information about the case. She checked in every day without fail, like taking a pill. Just once, and quickly, to get it over with. The compulsion didn’t make any sense, she knew; there was nothing in her life to threaten anymore. She had no relationships to protect, no real career or reputation. And if some malevolent ghost from her past did discover her here in Paris, it wouldn’t be Riley or Alls—it would be police about the painting; or Wyss, the collector or whatever he was, also about the painting; or the thug Wyss had sent to beat her up the first time. But Grace was never as afraid of the police or Wyss as she was of Riley and Alls, which was to say she was never as afraid of getting hurt as she was of having to look into the eyes of those she’d already hurt so much.

For obsession to be managed, Grace had learned, the object must be shrunk to a manageable size and enclosed within a manageable shape. Vast, hovering clouds must be packed into a small, hard mass or they would smother you. Now she didn’t think about Mrs. Graham anymore, her bridal portrait with magnolias at the waist. She didn’t think about Wyss’s man and his bolt cutters, and she didn’t think about where the painting was, and she didn’t think about what her life should have been—pregnant in America with a Volvo and health insurance—instead of this one, and she didn’t think of Alls at all. She had packed it all into one tiny box, and that box was checking the Albemarle Record every day, once a day, just quickly, to make sure there was no news from her old life that might show up in her new one.

The boys hadn’t ever spoken to the press, not even to the Record. They could, though, and at any time. She could never stop checking up on them.She’d had to accept that the Record would report, dutifully but mildly, on the Wynne robbery for the rest of their lives. Obituaries now included achievements like “longtime donor to the Josephus Wynne Historic Estate, which was robbed in 2009.” These mentions, though frequent, were benign. When there was no mention at all, she was rewarded with an irrational, temporary feeling of safety.

And then, one day in June, there it was: Riley Graham and Allston Hughes, the convicted robbers of the Josephus Wynne Historic Estate, would be released on parole, barring incident or compelling objection, on August 10. She thought she had touched bottom in her fear, and now it opened up beneath her.

A few days after the boys’ parole was announced, Grace received an e-mail from her mother that broke their unspoken agreement.

Riley is going to get paroled soon. I didn’t know when/if to tell you but his mom told me at mass last week. She said he wants to go back to school but not at GC. He has been drawing but is being very private about it. They are probably relieved about that. That poor family doesn’t need any more attention.

Poor family left a messy sting. She still felt she was one of the Grahams, though of course she had forsaken that privilege, and she resented her mother’s simple pity for them. But perhaps this was her mother’s nasty secret smirk: The Grahams were the poor family now.

The only objection to the parole came from the groundskeeper’s family. Wallace Cummins had died in 2010 after a second stroke, at the age of seventy-three. His obituary lauded him for his decades of service to the Josephus Wynne Historic Estate, but made no mention, for once, of the attempted robbery of the estate the year before. But shortly before the parole hearing, Wallace’s daughter told WTQT that her father was murdered. “That first stroke led directly to the second,” she said. “My dad was killed by criminals as surely as if they’d pulled a trigger.” She did not want the boys released on parole. She did not want them “loose.”

They were out by now; Grace knew it.

At five o’clock, she left the beads and walked the nine circuitous blocks to the nearest Internet café, one of the last remaining now that everyone else had smartphones, and bought ten minutes.

She’d braced herself for a mention on parole day. She held her breath as she waited for the page to load, but the Record’s top story was only the ongoing debate over the condemnation of the public pool. She began to type their names into the search field, and as she was typing, the page reloaded itself. The front page changed.

A photograph.

The boys were coming out of Lacombe together. She could see Riley’s mother close behind and, she thought, Alls’s father, but the face was blurry. Alls hated his father.

What if she didn’t recognize them, if they had changed that much? She would see a man in a shop or in the park and wonder. The last picture she had seen was from the first day of their prison terms. A local photographer had been waiting at the gates to watch them go in.

Now she was shocked at the sight of them. Riley was a man now. His hair was long again, faded to rust, and most of the curl had fallen out so that it fell in lank waves over his ears. It was dirty, maybe. His cheekbones were higher, his jaw sharper, his snub nose not so snubbed. He had two creases between his eyes, just like the lines his mother had called her “elevens.” His eyes were down; she couldn’t see them at all. She looked for his birthmark, a thumbprint under his jaw, but she couldn’t find it in the shadows. He looked so much older, more than three years older.

Alls was behind, biting his lip as if to hold his tongue. She remembered his teeth knocking against hers and swallowed.

Alls was still Alls. Riley was Riley, but not.

In the reflection of the computer screen, Grace saw a boy coming over to her, throwing his dish towel over his shoulder the way she’d seen Alls do a hundred times in the kitchen on Orange Street, and she felt the wheels on her rolling stool skate out from under her. She grabbed the edge of the desk to keep from going down.

“Ça va?” the boy asked her.

She turned around. His eyes were blank, his mouth empty and concerned, and he didn’t look like Alls at all.

“Ça va,” she said.

She stared at the photograph, hovering over every detail. Riley had filled out in his arms and chest, but his face was thinner. His freckles hadn’t faded—if anything, they seemed darker on his pale skin. She didn’t know the shirt he was wearing. It was too tight, stretching across his chest and pulling at the buttons. His hands looked so familiar to her that her own hands shook. She couldn’t help feeling that the gaze he was avoiding was hers.

Alls looked calm, smooth across his dark brow. He looked up at the camera, right at her from amber eyes. Maybe his release had brought him relief. It should, shouldn’t it? But Grace better understood the lines between Riley’s eyes, the incredible fatigue of the unknown.

 • • • 

Paris had been a mistake, she knew now. She should have gone to Tokyo or Mumbai. Someday, someone would see her. She’d had a scare once, at a wine bar almost two years before. She was on a date. Now the idea of a date was ridiculous to her—watching some poor boy imagine that she could make him happy!—but at the time she had been in Paris only a few months, and she believed she could fully become her new self.

Grace had been in Europe for almost a year then. She had stayed in Prague after the summer program. She was terrified to travel, as though she were invisible only as long as she was still. After they were sentenced in August she left for Berlin.

She worked any job she could scare up, from washing dishes and cleaning hotel rooms to modeling for expat artists. She was surprised at how resourceful she was, how quickly desperation eradicated her timidity, her fear. An antiques dealer whose small shop Grace cleaned at night had begun to train her in making minor repairs when her assistant disappeared. But Berlin, though big and anonymous, was lousy with New Yorkers, especially the kind of artsy twentysomethings who’d been her classmates during her brief time in New York. She already feared running into someone she’d known. She didn’t want to be Grace anymore, even for five minutes.

She changed her name and bleached her hair, hoping this would also change her on the inside. She left for Paris. Then practice losing farther, losing faster. She kept a copy of the Bishop poem tucked into her passport, mocking the drama of her own loss. If she couldn’t find Grace, no one else could either.

But she wanted a life, however small it would have to be. A bartender from Melun asked her to dinner one afternoon while she was reading in the Jardin du Luxembourg. He was deferential and friendly, and though Grace’s French was still a bit tangled, he seemed uninterested in her American past. They had dinner and a glass of wine, and when they parted ways at the metro, Grace was euphoric to have done it—a date! Even lying to a perfect stranger could provide a sense of intimacy, if it presented the very limit of contact. She met him again four days later for dinner at Racines, and it was there that she saw Len Schrader, the father of her college roommate in New York, Kendall Schrader. She’d met the Schrader parents just twice, but she was almost certain.

She felt as if she’d seen a character from her nightmares. But why? Len Schrader was so far removed from Garland, and Grace looked so different—paler, thinner, another blonde dressed all in black. He would not recognize the college freshman from Tennessee. But if he did, he might come over to her table. He might say, “Kendi’s friend? I thought that was you!” He might ask her questions about what she was doing there, and even if she answered them in the same vague way that she had for her date, Len Schrader would tell her what his daughters were up to these days, even if she didn’t ask. He might remember that Grace had left NYU, and his daughter’s life, quite abruptly.

Her date would ask why he had called her Grace. And hadn’t she said she was from California? And Len Schrader might tell his daughter he’d seen Grace in France, and Kendall might wonder, again, what had become of Grace, and that boyfriend of hers. . . .

And on, and on.

So Grace had smiled at her date and suggested that maybe they weren’t that hungry after all, maybe they should go, and then she sneaked out the side door like a psychopath or a sure thing, depending on his expectations. He followed her out and she went home with him. How strange it was to feel safe only with strangers! She had sex with the bartender, trying to fully participate in this made-up life she was so determined to have, and shared a cigarette in his kitchen under a yellow light. Grace didn’t smoke, but Julie did.

Two weeks later, the bartender showed up near the Clignancourt metro. Grace was on her way home, and she saw him there on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette and talking on his cell phone. She hadn’t given her number. She had slipped out of his apartment while he slept.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded.

He’d laughed, a little meanly. “My sister lives here,” he said, nodding toward the building next door. “I’m waiting for her to come down.”

At first, she hadn’t believed him. She understood that she was paranoid, but that didn’t mean she held the cure. Her new life would have to be very small indeed.




A bad apple. Grace had first noticed her mother say it about the tabby kitten Grace’s father had brought home when they’d first moved to Garland. He’d found it mewing behind the Dumpsters at his work. “There’s coolant around there,” he told Grace’s mother when he brought the kitten home.

“He probably already drank some of it,” Grace’s mother said.

“Well,” her father said, which was how they agreed to disagree.

Grace named the kitten Skyler—“How about Tigger?” her mother had asked—and watched it grow, under their haphazard care, into a mean adolescent who would beg to be petted, bumping his head against their legs, and then promptly sink his fangs into the wrist or fleshy palm of whoever fell for it and tried to show him affection.

“That cat is a bad apple,” Grace’s mother said. “He can’t help it; he’s just rotten.”

That Skyler could not help his nature kept Grace tender toward him for longer than her parents were. Then her cousin, a boy of eighteen, went to jail for stealing credit cards out of the neighbors’ mail.

“He’s just a bad apple,” Grace’s pregnant mother said, leaning over the sink to wash her hands. She was a home health aide and always washing her hands of something. “He stole from his own mother. You know, I caught him once, going through her drawers.”

“You got to drop that,” her father said. “He wasn’t any older than Grace is when all that happened.”

Her mother raised her eyebrows. Well. “It isn’t Regina’s fault. They did their best.”

Her father took the cat—he wasn’t referred to by name once he was gone—to the shelter after he bit Grace’s ankle, unprovoked. Grace’s mother was nearly due; they couldn’t have him attacking the babies.


Excerpted from "Unbecoming"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Rebecca Scherm.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Unbecoming

“Startlingly inventive.”
The New York Times Book Review

“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

Unbecoming is the story of a heist, and especially what happens afterwards. No one thinks beyond the maps and the timetables and the moment of sale, its narrator tells us, but Rebecca Scherm has done just that, showing us the tense, suspenseful aftermath of an unraveled plan. Unbecoming is a novel of voice, invention, and momentum, as tautly plotted as any Hitchcock movie and focused on the central question any lover and any jewel thief must eventually ask:  How do you tell what’s fake from what’s real?”
—Karen Joy Fowler

“‘Self-assured’ doesn’t begin to describe the skill with which Rebecca Scherm develops her central character—Grace—and the tangled web she weaves, which is her life itself. It’s a completely compelling read from start to finish, beautifully researched and brilliantly constructed. I loved it.”
—Elizabeth George

“Some characters who go bad find that it’s against their nature, and some who go bad discover that dishonesty is the central truth about themselves. Rebecca Scherm’s wonderful novel Unbecoming has a mesmerizing narrator, Grace, who discovers that her gift (and it is a real gift) is for deceit. A thriller, a psychological study, and a love story, this novel is an unusually intelligent and suspenseful book. The dark arts have rarely been so brightly lit.”
—Charles Baxter

“Artfully constructed and beautifully nuanced, Unbecoming is an elegant, page-turning mystery of theft, betrayal, and young love, which brilliantly reveals that the very worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves.”
—Kimberly McCreight

“Scherm’s debut has a plot that twists and turns, but it is the enigma of who Grace really is that will keep readers hooked until the very end. A bleak tone, deeply flawed protagonist, and dysfunctional relationships will draw well-deserved comparisons to Gillian Flynn.”
Library Journal

“Scherm mixes a character study with caper novel full of double-crosses, lies, and betrayals.”
—Publishers Weekly

Reading Group Guide

An Introduction to Unbecoming
Everyone in Paris knows Grace as Julie and thinks she’s from California. They have no idea that she’s actually from Garland, Tennessee, that she’s secretly married to her childhood sweetheart, Riley, and that Riley and his best friend—her erstwhile lover—Alls are serving a three-year sentence for a heist that Grace designed.

Grace never meant to become a criminal. At first, stealing from a local historic estate seemed like their best escape from a tough financial situation. Though Grace was enchanted by Riley’s family, who embraced her as their own, she felt suffocated by the limitations of their small town. Yet before she could go through with it as planned, Grace’s deceptions started to take on a life of their own, and betrayal was her only way out. Having set up Riley, Alls, and their friend Greg to commit the crime—which they ultimately botched—Grace escaped with a valuable stolen painting stashed in her bag and headed for Prague.

These last three years living at large have not been kind to her, but she knows she can never turn back. After finding work with a shady French dealer, she restores antiques and jewelry that she suspects are stolen. With her new identity, limited wages, no real friends, and dismal living conditions, Grace is surviving. Still, she’s haunted by memories: At night she furtively checks the Garland newspaper online for updates on Riley and Alls, both of whom are due to be released from prison any minute. She worries that Riley will come after her for the stolen painting, or to exact revenge, or to reclaim his place in her life as her husband. Either way, she has no idea how she will face him. Yet even as her fears mount, she finds herself confiding in a coworker, Hanna, a woman with a dark history of her own. As Grace’s secrets are revealed and her old life threatens to pull her back in, she scrambles to reinvent herself once more.

With an intricately crafted plot and smart, subtly drawn characters, Rebecca Scherm’s debut echoes the international cat-and-mouse games of Alfred Hitchcock films and the psychological suspense of Patricia Highsmith novels.

1. What does Grace love about Riley and why is she drawn to him?

2. Riley paints buildings. What do his artistic choices say about his character?

3. Why is Grace’s time in New York important, and what does it teach her about herself and her relationship with Riley?

4. Grace is a self-professed liar but claims she gets no joy from it. Why, then, do you think she’s constantly avoiding telling the truth?

5. There are many thieves and liars in this book. Which acts are forgivable, and which are not?

6. What aspects of the heist and its aftermath unfold in the way Grace predicts? Which parts surprise her? 

7. In Alls, Grace finds something of a kindred spirit. What is it that they have in common? How is Alls like or unlike Riley?

8. Grace finally breaks down and tells her story—or most of it—to her coworker Hanna. What makes her choose Hanna as a confidante? What is Hanna’s response?

9. Alls comments that Grace shines a light that blinds others to who she really is. How can this quality be both a positive and a negative trait in a person?

10. Throughout the book, Grace has the sense that Riley is going to catch up with her and confront her. What did you expect would happen? 

11. The title of this book evokes multiple meanings. What does it mean to you? 

Customer Reviews

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Unbecoming: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
CPAC2012 More than 1 year ago
Grace is living in Paris, three years after she conned her secret husband into thinking it was his idea to carry out a heist that she herself conceived, and double crossing her lover-to-be with a painting worth about two million dollars. Both young men ended up in jail for the theft, but now they are out and Grace is increasingly convinced, and logically afraid, that they will exact their revenge on her for her twisty maneuvering. Unbecoming is a dark psychological suspense (not much of a thriller, really!) and intricate character study of a relationship that started in the early teen years and becomes muddied by lies, pretenses, and betrayal when life doesn't turn out as rosy as they hoped it would. Moreover, it is a slow burning fire that never quite amounts to fireworks nonetheless it is impossible to put down. The four main characters, three of which are in a love triangle, are utterly unlikable, yet so human that we can't help but keep reading about the train wrecks their lives have become. I enjoyed Unbecoming for what it was. Scherm was great at depicting Grace’s duplicitous nature, as well as the eroticism inherent in the love triangle. Unbecoming is an intense portrayal of misguided youth, but I prefer more thrilling readings. DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free eGalley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a gem of book; engaging, intricate, thoroughly satisfying. I can't wait to see what this author does next, because you know she's only going to get better.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did not want it to end!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First off for all of the authors who are adding something along the lines of: " is sure to entrance fans of Gillian Flynn" better live up to that. I have fallen trap now a few times of reading an overview and being interested in a book to see that above statement about Gillian Flynn and buy it simply because I've read and love all of her books. This book is A. absolutely nothing like her writing and B. is most definitely not a psychological thriller. This was so utterly boring it was a pain to finish. The story was interesting only in that it flashed back in time to present time, however that was the only interesting thing about this book. So dull, no thrill at all. I would pass on this and definitely be wary of the Gillian Flynn association.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Atthebeach More than 1 year ago
A very good read about lying, cheating, stealing and disappearing. A good mystery. The main character, Grace, who planned a crime and then disappeared on her cohorts who were caught and punished, lives a lie of a life in Europe, hiding out from the guys she left behind. It's tricky and she lives in fear, but as she does, she has quite and interesting job restoring antiques, jewelry, etc. I loved all the info regarding how that world works though there is dishonesty and deception there, too. The tension builds after her former friends and lovers get out of jail and attempt to find her. It gets wild and interesting. My only complaint was that it ended too soon and I wanted a bit more. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book kept me guessing throughout - it's surprisingly detailed and intricate. I couldn't put it down.
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings An art heist and a love triangle make this book quite an interesting read.  Grace grew up in a small Tennessee town and has been tied to one boy her whole life, but there has been another she has thought of also.  Alls and Riley are the two boys that in different ways have driven her crazy - crazy enough to leave Tennessee and head to Paris.   The book is broken into sections between the present moment in Paris and the past in Tennessee.  I appreciated getting both present moments and the past, the reader needed the details of the past to really know Grace and the boys.  I felt like the author included the perfect amount of present and past in the same book. Grace tells her entire story and conveniently works with someone in Paris who also has a shady past and who she assumes she can confide in.  I sort of fell in like with Hanna - not love, but surely like.  I wouldn't mind a novella or something with Hanna and maybe even starting with her side of their story and after (no spoilers!).  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
lrhubble More than 1 year ago
A Great Book Contemporary, Suspense, Some Romantic Elements Garland, Tennessee and Paris, France Grace restores bric-a-brac, resets gems and mends teapots on the outskirts of Paris. The first lie that Grace told Hanna was her name. Grace now calls herself Julie and tells people she is from California. At night she goes back to her rented room. She is really from Garland, Tennessee. It is also where two young men have just been paroled. She is married to one and in love with the other. They both went to prison for a crime that Grace planned in great detail. Now a game of cat-and-mouse begins as all of Grace’s lies start to unravel. This is a book that weaves a tale so intricately twisted that it keeps readers wondering just what is going to happen next and where it will end up. The characters are complex and flawed and make for a story that is riveting. Just as readers think they know where this one is headed it takes another twist and readers are back to wondering just where this is headed and now it will end. It switches back and forth from the past to the present but in such a way that the reader is never lost and it fills in all the little details that makes for a fascinating story. At the end all the threads are neatly tied up to give the reader a very satisfying end. It is also a story that will have them thinking about it long after they have finished the book. Received a review copy
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
[ I received this book free from the author through GoodReads/ First Reads . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising] {N. B.: This book will be published in January 2015 by Viking Press. My copy was an Advanced Readers' Copy. Although this review is being posted on GoodReads Nov.22,2014, it is possible I may not be able to post it other places until closer to January} "You need one person who knows you", she said. "Just one person you can't fool, even when you fool yourself"(284) You have to have a flawless memory in order to be a great liar, especially if you need to prove it to the face in the mirror. This is what Grace realized and is continuing to realise, as the past she is running from begins to dovetail back into the present reality that she, as Julie from California, watches the little Southern girl from Garland TN, start peeping out from the facade as two men are paroled from her past. Now what can she do? Learning the beaux arts of fabrication and refurbishing while working in a small studio in Paris, Grace begins to understand the art of reinvention herself. A college dropout with secrets galore, she is a student if life, and learns by example to " do one thing, do it well, and then go on to the next". Complications only mess up the settings, and cause way too much drama. She was shoved to the side as a child, strove to be a good girl in school, wanted to be an art critic but in her own way became an artist of minutiae as a young adult. Unbecoming is a strange haunting psycologically intriguing mystery in classic Hitchcock mode. It is disturbingly reminicent of books that share its shelf like Mary Stewart's Ivy Tree or Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels. Like them it is very unsettling and you may find yourself returning to its themes and ideas repeatedly in the near future after you it