Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier


The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
by Nichole Bernier
Broadway Paperbacks, 2013
originally published 2012
305 pages
source: review copy from publisher

Summary (from Goodreads):

Before there were blogs, there were journals. And in them we’d write as we really were, not as we wanted to appear. But there comes a day when journals outlive us. And with them, our secrets.

Summer vacation on Great Rock Island was supposed to be a restorative time for Kate, who’d lost her close friend Elizabeth in a sudden accident. But when she inherits a trunk of Elizabeth's journals, they reveal a woman far different than the cheerful wife and mother Kate thought she knew.
 
The complicated portrait of Elizabeth makes Kate question not just their friendship, but her own deepest beliefs about loyalty and honesty at a period of uncertainty in her own marriage — as well as her own choices as a wife, mother, and professional, and the legacy she herself would want to leave behind.

When an unfamiliar man’s name appears in the pages, Kate realizes the extent of what she didn’t know about her friend, including where she was really going on the day she died.

My thoughts: 

I accepted a review copy of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. based on two factors - the setting and the fact that journal entries figure prominently in the story. Books set on the New England coast always call to me, but a summer house on an island made this one irresistible. I'm also a big fan of epistolary novels and hoped the journal entries would impart a similar feeling.

Opening the novel to find a quote by Wallace Stegner, one of my favorite authors, I suspected I'd made the right decision.
"Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to... You are at once a lasting presence and an unhealed wound."
 -- Wallace Stegner, "Letter, Much Too Late"
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. forces its readers to ask the question: Do we ever truly know our friends? For that matter, how well can we really know anyone?

This book kept me up far too late several nights in a row. I was glued to the stories of two friends unfolding side by side. Kate's life is revealed as the novel progresses, while we learn about Elizabeth posthumously through her journals.

 Although I am now older than either of these women, it was very easy to relate to both of them. I have been there - an "at home mom" leaving a career behind and making new friends through a local play group. It took years to learn their backstories.  The kids have reached their twenties, the families have mostly scattered, and now I wonder how well we actually knew each other.

Reading Elizabeth's journals allows Kate to finally know her deceased friend and to understand how she came to be the seemingly perfect wife and mother, and also prompts her to reflect upon the many "what ifs" in her own life. The reader, of course, follows her down this path.
"Choices, repercussions... It was a strange way to think of dating - a limiting of your options and lifestyle because you'd chosen one type of partner over another - though it was technically true. It was true of most decisions. The effects of your choices might not be clear at the moment they were made. But if you turned back to see where you'd come, there they'd be, the ghost of the path not taken leading to the places you would never go." p. 131
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is sure to be a hit with book clubs, too. The paperback edition's "Extra Libris" section includes not only a reader's guide, but a conversation with the author and a list of recommended reading. My all-time favorite novel - Crossing to Safety  by Wallace Stegner - occupies the #1 position among "books that remind us you never really know the hearts and minds of others".  I can envision discussions of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. ranging far and wide ... especially if wine is involved!

Highly recommended.

My rating:

28 comments:

  1. I'm attracted to books with journals and letters too. This sounds wonderful!

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    1. Kathy - I think you 'd enjoy this one!

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  2. I really loved this book. It struck a chord with me too, being a stay at home mom who gave up a successful career to take care of my kids. I have never regretted the decision, but we all have these parts of ourselves that many don't ever see. I totally agree that this would make SUCH a good book club selection.

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    1. Sandy - I never regretted my decision to stay home with the kids either. It always fascinated me to learn what women did "before" - we were a variety of professionals who chose to put careers on hold. When the kids all went to school, we reinvented ourselves as a book club and continued to meet. A couple core members are still involved today. Can't wait to suggest this book to the group!

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  3. I enjoyed this one. I, too, choose to set aside my career to fully devote myself to being a mom and think I made one of the best decisions of my life. It definitely makes for an excellent discussion book.

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    1. Nise' - I think this is destined to become a book club favorite!

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  4. I'm always looking for a good book club selection. The connection with Wallace Stegner is a plus. I've only read Angle of Repose, but it was enough to make me a fan.

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    1. Shelley - Book clubs will love this one! I think Stegner's Crossing to Safety would be an excellent follow-up selection.

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  5. I was intrigued by this when I saw it on your sidebar, and now even more so.(And I was jealous when I saw the P. Post in your mail the other day, but fortunately mine came the next day.)

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    1. Audrey - So much to consider and discuss with this one. I'm hoping my book club will read it this summer. Glad your Biannually arrived, too!

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  6. I just finished this one (no review yet) but that quote from p. 131 was one that struck me as well -- so very true. The audio was pretty good as well (I had both versions).

    Terrific review JoAnn.

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    1. Diane - I'll look forward to your review! I flagged several passages in the book, but that one really stood out... an astute observation, and so very true. Glad to hear the audio was well done, too.

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  7. A new author for me! I am quite intrigued now and will search this one out.

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    1. Peggy - Bernier is a new author for me, too, and I will definitely keep an eye out for her future novels.

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  8. This one sounds truly amazing to me!! I really think I could love this one! awesome review!

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    1. Thanks, Staci. I think you would like Elizabeth D.!

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  9. I really like novels that explore how well we know each other because it does seem that people in our lives make such perplexing choices at times. I'm not a mother, but I truly try to understand the struggles and challenges they face - you're right, this book has already made me think and would be great for a book club discussion!

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    1. Anbolyn - I think this is going to become a book club favorite now that it's out in paperback.

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  10. This sounds fantastic, brilliant review!

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  11. This one has been a WTR for me for awhile. Great to hear its in paperback - and I have to say that I find this cover design much more appealing than the hardback.

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    1. Karen White - Oh, I agree! The paperback cover is much more attractive.

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  12. I love a good book for book clubs because that means it is thought-provoking!

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    1. Jill - There is certainly a lot to think about and discuss with this one!

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  13. Definitely think I'll add this to the book club list. Since I can't count on anyone else to read the books, I pick only books that sound interesting to me!

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    1. Lisa - I shouldn't laugh, because sometimes we only have a few members that actually read the book, too. Guess you might just as well please yourself ;-)

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  14. Sounds like a winner! I love epistolary works and the setting sounds like something I'd enjoy reading about, too. I don't think I'll try to find this on audio, since you found a bunch of passages to mark. Great review, JoAnn. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention!

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    1. Les - The journal entries and beach house really did it for me... thoroughly enjoyed this one. My mother is finding it a little slower going though. Hope you get a chance to read it!

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