Girl, Unframed

by Deb Caletti

“I started to worry – about Lila and money. About us. I didn’t know if we were okay. I wished I could make things better. I wanted to fix it for her. She was my mother, you know. That’s how it works. You hate them sometimes, but then you’d do anything so they won’t be sad. Anything. As a kid, you need your parent to be happy…

The worry it rattled me. It was that dread again. At first, it was like the unsettling chiming of crystals on a swinging chandelier, and then more like the clatter of teacups and china in a shuddering cupboard. Worse and worse. Getting stronger. Tremors before the quake.”

Ratings & Reviews

Book Grade: B+

Girl, Unframed is a complicated story. Each chapter begins with a mention of a piece of evidence, so the assumption is that some crime has been committed. Much of the story, however, focuses on Sydney trying to figure out who she is, what she stands for, and what to do with her famous mother. Sydney feels isolated while spending her summer with her mom; in spite of the beautiful beach-front mansion, she never feels truly comfortable and misses the world that she had back in Seattle.

While trying to combat her loneliness, Sydney travels about San Francisco and ends up meeting Nicco, a sweet and captivating guy who finally “sees” her and doesn’t care who her mother is. He (along with Jake’s dog, Max) is her only real comfort, and serves as a distraction from her growing fear that Jake is up to no good with his mysterious and constantly increasing collection of art.

While the story is intriguing, and this feels like a real coming of age tale, it is fairly slow. There is a lot of reflection and Sydney repeatedly comments on her loneliness (only natural when you are forced to stay with your all-but-estranged mom and her shady boyfriend). This is a thought driven plot versus an action driven plot – that will not suit everyone. Also, while I went into this thinking that it was a mystery book, the mystery is a very small part of the story. Yes, the ending has a surprise, and neatly wraps everything up, but much like life, not all the pieces fit so tidily.

Overall, this book is captivating and it is fascinating to watch Sydney grow up and come to understand herself. It is, however, a slow, introspective read.

Movie Rating: R

Girl, Unframed is a real and raw. Foul language, domestic violence, teen sex, and verbal harassment are all parts of this novel. Sydney is trying to figure out who she is and is looking at Lila for guidance, but only seeing a woman who has relied on how people see her rather than coming to terms with what she wants. Sydney is angsty and angry – a combination that could be lethal, but instead reassures readers that she is being empowered as she comes to know herself.

With frequent references to nude beaches, gay couples, risque movies, and more mature topics, Girl, Unframed is not for the tame of heart. Girls who are seeking a bit of empowerment might find this to be the perfect fit, but girls who want a more straightforward romance and mystery combo will likely be disappointed.

Would I Buy This for My Library: Maybe

Girl, Unframed is clever and original, but really hard to put into a genre. It is mostly coming of age/realistic fiction, but some readers will find the slow start and lack of real action to be off-putting. If you know your readers and know that they are looking for and edgy, empowered female lead, this would be a great fit! If, however, you know that most students want a straightforward book that will hook the quickly, I might pass on this one.


Life is hard when you are the daughter of Lila Shore – famous actress, glamorous celebrity, and wealthy socialite. Sydney has to spend the summer with Lila and not only does she have to give up her friends from her boarding school in Seattle, but she is forced to deal with the dysfunction and loneliness of her mother’s world in San Francisco. Sydney is Girl, Unframed and is about to have the world she knows (and the mother she doesn’t) comes crashing down in totally unexpected and troubling ways.

From the moment that she arrives in San Francisco, Sydney is uncomfortable. She has friends and plans in Seattle, and is more than a little reluctant to join her mother over the summer. Lila, an aging actress, is eager to spend time with Sydney, but doesn’t know how to manage a relationship with Jake, a mysterious real estate investor (who happens to be the landlord for the massive waterfront mansion she is renting) and her daughter at the same time. Sydney, determined not to give in to the arguing and tension in the house, spends loads of time at the beach and with Max, Jake’s dog. No matter how much time she spends away from the mansion, she still dreads going back to the house, worrying what threat might await her when she returns.

The longer she stays, though, the more suspicious she becomes that all is not as it seems with her mom and Jake. Perhaps it is the mysterious paintings which keep being delivered to the mansion, or the rejection of Lila’s credit card, or even the man in the mysterious car who seems to be regularly watching the house. All of it adds up to something that is being hidden from her, and Sydney doesn’t like it one bit. Where are those famous paintings really coming from? Why is Jake so controlling of her and her mother? Is Lila aware of how dangerous her situation really is?

This book is part mystery and part coming of age story. Sydney’s realizes that as she gets older, she doesn’t necessarily control how others see her. Some see her as Lila’s daughter, others see her for her body, and still others fail to see her at all. With first person narrative details, Sydney evaluates how she feels about all of this while also starting to see things in her mother’s life that make her concerned. She also examines how Nicco, her first real boyfriend, fits into her life and what it means to choose him when she has so little control over everything else in her life.

Told in a way that builds a case in Sydney’s defense (for a crime that she didn’t even commit), Girl, Unframed is a gritty, real book about growing up and figuring things out even when everything is holding you back.

Book Talk Questions:

  1. Describe Sydney’s relationship with Meredith and Meredith’s family. How does this compare with her relationship with her own family?
  2. How does Lila try to show Sydney that she cares? How does Sydney interpret this?
  3. When does Sydney first start to question the art that appears at the house? What supports her suspicions that something is off?
  4. Describe Sydney’s relationship with Jake. How does she come to understand his relationship with Lila?
  5. When Lila asks Sydney to help her, why does she comply? What does this mean for Sydney and how does it shape her relationship with her mother?
  6. Where does Sydney leave things with Nicco?

A Perfect Read for Fans Of…

  • I Killed Zoe Spanos by Kit Frick
  • My Eyes are Up Here by Laura Zimmerman
  • Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power

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