The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
by Nichole Bernier
Broadway Paperbacks, 2013
originally published 2012
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.
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."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?
-- Wallace Stegner, "Letter, Much Too Late"
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. 131The 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!