Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fiction Review: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

I had been suggesting The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier to my neighborhood book group for several months, so I was thrilled when the group finally chose it for our February selection. Everyone in the group enjoyed this insightful book about women, friendships, secrets, relationships, motherhood – there is just so much packed into this engaging novel that we had plenty to talk about!

As the novel opens, Kate, a mother of two young children, is still trying to adjust after the startling death of her closest friend a year before in a plane crash. The September 11th attacks occurred just a few months after her friend Elizabeth’s death, and both events have left Kate feeling rattled. On their way to their annual family beach vacation, Kate and her husband and kids stop at Elizabeth’s house to pick up a small trunk that was left to Kate in the will. Elizabeth’s husband, Dave, is not too pleased that his wife mysteriously chose to leave this trunk, filled with journals that Elizabeth wrote, to Kate. She wanted Kate to be the one to read the journals and decide what to do with them.

On their vacation, Kate begins to make her way through the journals, starting at the beginning when Elizabeth was only a young teen, as her friend had requested. Before long, the journals have become something of an obsession for Kate, much to the irritation of her husband, Chris. It turns out that sweet, placid Elizabeth had a number of secrets – things she’d been through and hadn’t ever shared – as well as secret insecurities and anxieties that Kate never even suspected. Kate begins to wonder whether she really knew her old friend, and as she reads about some problems and secrets in her marriage to Dave, she also begins to question the stability of her own marriage to Chris.

This story is engaging and compelling with a bit of a mystery at its core – everyone in the group said they read it quickly and had trouble putting it down – but it is also thought provoking and insightful. Our group talked about it easily for a couple of hours, jumping from topics of women’s friendships to marriage to motherhood to journal-keeping to post 9/11 anxieties and secrets….and then after I got home, my mind was still spinning, thinking, “Oh, we didn’t talk about that” and “I should have asked what everyone thought of this!” In short, this novel really got under my skin and made me think.

I also loved Bernier’s writing. I turned down many corners of the book to mark quotes I wanted to write down later – just so many times when she perfectly expressed some truth about motherhood or being a woman or friendship or some other topic. One example is this musing from Kate on traveling with kids:

“For years, traveling as a family had been something undertaken with determination, their agility weighed by bulky gear and days defined by naps, meals, moods. It had seemed as if those years would last forever, though a small part of her wished they would. Memories of even the difficult times – children crying themselves to exhaustion in cars, planes, hotels – were beginning to take on the cast of nostalgia. She had watched them fall asleep at last, puffy mouths gone slack, with equal parts relief and heartbreak. They would never, she’d thought, be as fully hers as they were at that moment of surrender. The dawn of traveling freedom shimmered ahead. But Kate suspected this, like other things that surprised her, would come with a wistfulness for what had passed too quickly.”

With the dawn of real traveling freedom just ahead for us, with one son in college now and one in high school, I identified with every tired, yearning, nostalgic word of that passage. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of Bernier’s first novel and can’t wait to read her next one, which she describes in this video.

305 pages, Crown Publishers

NOTE: Nichole Bernier made a series of videos for our book group, answering questions we’d submitted ahead of time. In this video, she explains what was behind her novel and how she came up with the idea (don't worry - no spoilers in this one!)

1 comment:

  1. I love that cover and the title is so intriguing. I'm always thrilled when I hear about a writer who takes time to interact with a book club. Fabulous opportunity for a behind the scenes look at the writer's life. I'm stopping by from Small Victories linky today.