17 September 2012

Review: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier

Imagine that one of your good friends was killed in an accident and you found out she bequeathed 26 years of personal journals to you instead of to her husband or young children. You are picked because you're "fair and sensitive and would know what should be done with them"; you're instructed to "start at the beginning."

That's what happened to Kate. Although Kate considered Elizabeth to be a good friend, she was surprised, flattered, and confused at being chosen keeper of the journals. Surprised and confused because the women had in fact known each other only a handful of years, and Kate had moved away more than a year before Elizabeth's death. But flattered that the self-assured, calm, and organized Elizabeth trusted her.

Nichole Bernier's The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. covers seven weeks in the summer of 2002, during which Kate's family is vacationing on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The story is told from two perspectives: Kate's as she reads the journals, reflects on her own life and marriage, and thinks about the future, and Elizabeth's as she writes her most private thoughts, presumably for only herself.

Bernier is equally adept at the narrative style of Kate's story and the private diary style of Elizabeth's. She does an impressive job keeping the personalities of the two women distinct and presenting their life choices in a way that allows the reader, not the author, to be the judge.

Although Kate and Elizabeth struggle with universal issues (motherhood vs. career, making compromises and sacrifices for children and marriage), the novel moves beyond the usual fare. The focus is not so much on what a person presents to the world but on what she keeps to herself.

Every reader will immediately pick up on the question, How well do you know your friends and spouse? Every mother will wonder about how her family would cope without her. But careful readers will find that Bernier is also exploring other, less obvious issues faced by modern, smart mothers of young children.

One of the principal themes of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. involves dealing with sad or difficult life events. Which is better: to talk about loss and sorrow and troubles or to bury them deep within and hide them behind your smiles? Another is the idea that "with enough will, a person could make herself over any way she chose." This feeds back into that question of how well we can know another person and also makes us wonder just how much a person can truly change. A third theme has do with the meaning of commitment, not just in a love relationship but also among family and friends. Just what are your obligations to another person? To a loved one? Under what circumstances, if any, is it okay to care more about yourself than about your family?

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is clearly an excellent book club pick. Besides the topics I've already mentioned, readers might also want to talk about death, grieving, friendship, parenting, and marriage in the context of the novel and their own lives. Whether you connect with Kate or Elizabeth or to their husbands or to none of them, you'll find a lot to think about and discuss. Nichole Bernier's debut novel will resonate with women of all ages.

Be sure to come back tomorrow when I welcome Nichole Bernier to Beth Fish Reads as a guest blogger. I love Nichole's post and I'm sure you will too.

Buy The Unfinished Life of Elizabeth D. at an Indie, Powell's, Book Depository, or a bookstore near you. These links lead to affiliate programs.
Published by Random House / Crown Publishing Group / Crown, 2012
ISBN-13: 9780307887801
Rating: B+
Source: review (see review policy)
t © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Sandy Nawrot 9/17/12, 7:06 AM  

Candace, may I just be the first to tell you that this was an excellent review. Truly. I've seen this book around, and it sounded interesting, but you just pulled it out of the list and made this a must read for me. I'm headed out to get it from somewhere.

Erika Robuck 9/17/12, 7:51 AM  

That was the best review I've ever read of this novel. I read the book several months ago and gave it to my mother and sister in law so I could talk about it with them. It would make an excellent book club pick with so much to discuss.

Nise' 9/17/12, 10:37 AM  

I agree this book would be great for a book club! Wonderful review!

Stacy at The Novel Life 9/17/12, 11:36 AM  

This one does sound like a fantastic book club read. I cannot even fathom WHO to leave my personal journals to ~ what a great concept for a book!

Zibilee 9/17/12, 12:05 PM  

I've read a few reviews of this one, and thought it sounded interesting, but now I want to read it even more. I think the themes you talk about are so universal, and interesting. As I was reading your review, I was questioning myself about some things as well. Excellent review today!

caite 9/17/12, 1:35 PM  

26years of journals? I would not be happy.

bermudaonion 9/17/12, 2:05 PM  

I've been wanting to read this ever since Julie raved about it.

Julie P. 9/17/12, 5:26 PM  

We just read this one for our book club last week -- I picked. We also were lucky enough to have the author join us via Skype!

Jenners 9/17/12, 5:57 PM  

This sounds really interesting. And the idea of "reading" someone's journal (even if it is a book character's) is just too enticing to me.

Sue Jackson 9/17/12, 7:33 PM  

I have heard lots of good things about this book. It sounds like an intriguing concept. I need to add it to my TBR list.

Thanks for the great review!


Book By Book

Carrie K. 9/17/12, 11:12 PM  

I have this out from the library on audio and, after reading your review, plan to get to it very soon!

Nichole Bernier 9/18/12, 12:09 AM  

Thanks for all the kind words, everyone, and especially to BFR for her very thoughtful read of the book. It's rare that someone delves below the "how well do we know our friends and spouses" level, and she does, so well.

Susan Spann 9/18/12, 12:55 AM  

I fell in love with this novel when I read a much shorter review of it somewhere else, but this is the first review I've read that truly does the book justice. It's a fantastic concept and though I haven't read it yet it's definitely high on the list as soon as I finish the final edits and get my own manuscript out the door!

Karen White 9/18/12, 10:09 AM  

Lovely review. So interesting: I just read Miss Me When I'm Gone by Emily Arsenault. It, too, is about a woman who is entrusted with her friend's writing by the family after the friend dies. It, too, deals with secrets and keeping things hidden as well as family, but other than that has a completely different tone. Arsenault also does a great job of differentiating her voice between the journal entries and the story narrative.

Charlie 9/19/12, 7:05 AM  

I liked this book, though felt there was more to explore, even if it was wrapped up well in the end. I liked the look into mothers who want to continue with their lives the way Elizabeth did, and the way that her diaries push Kate to remember how she was thinking of doing similar.

Les 9/23/12, 9:26 AM  

You've piqued my interest! I'm not a journal-keeper, but I love epistolary novels and this one sounds intriguing. Off to add it to my list.

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