The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.: A Novel Hardcover – Jun 5 2012
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"Bernier’s excellent storytelling skills will keep you pondering long after the final page." --The Washingon Post
“Bernier masterfully eases open the doors that guard our deepest fears and, against a backdrop of a New England beach vacation, sweeps in fresh air and hope.” —Parade
“Thanks to incredibly realistic characters, this smart, bittersweet tale brilliantly captures what it means to be a mom, wife and friend.” —Family Circle
“I loved this bittersweet novel, which manages to be both a compelling mystery and a wise meditation on friendship, marriage and motherhood in an age of great anxiety. Bernier will have you thinking about her characters long after you've turned the final page.” —J. Courtney Sullivan, New York Times bestselling author of Commencement and Maine
“A smart, poignant novel about the bittersweet choices women make and the secrets they keep. This is one of those rare novels that's so real you forget it's written; I literally carried it around with me, and I missed the characters when I was done.” —Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers
“Nichole Bernier writes as though she were born knowing how to do so. She understands the fragility of the human heart and also the enduring strength of even imperfect relationships. The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is a gripping book with a delicate, tender core. You will read on to unravel a mystery but also, to be moved, page after page.” —Robin Black, author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This
"An absorbing, bittersweet novel that examines the vast grey area between protecting and deceiving the ones we love." —Vanessa Diffenbaugh, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers
“Written with exquisite grace, depth, and honesty, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. explores decisions driven by motherhood and marriage. I was transfixed as Kate read the journals she’d inherited from Elizabeth, peeling back the layers of her friend’s life, and in the process grappling with her own choices and terrors. Women have secret lives—sometimes hidden in the corners of our minds, sometimes in dreams unrealized. One mark of friendship is when and whether these nightmares and ambitions can be revealed. This riveting novel fiercely captures this fulcrum of the public and private lives of American mothers.” —Randy Susan Meyers, international bestselling author of The Murderer’s Daughters
“Debut novelist Bernier’s thoughtful observations on friendship, identity, motherhood, work, and marriage wrap around the mystery of Elizabeth, whose journal writing enlivens the book and gives readers much to think about. This literary novel should be a favorite of book groups and have broad appeal beyond.” —Library Journal
“Moments of beauty and depth of spirit will appeal to readers interested in secrets revealed.” —Publishers Weekly
"This exquisite and honest portrait of friendship and motherhood unfurls a suspenseful plot whose jaw-dropping surprise ending is one that readers will be sure to discuss long after the book has been finished." --BookPage
"Bernier successfully explores how women manage to balance so much in their everyday life and the complicated emotions (guilt, frustration, fear) that go along with being a working mother...The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is an important read for anyone who dares to ask just how well we really know our friends and neighbors, and what those discoveries mean about us." --BookPage
About the Author
NICHOLE BERNIER is a writer for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, Men’s Journal and Boston Magazine, and a 14-year contributing editor with Conde Nast Traveler, where she was previously on staff as the golf and ski editor and a columnist. She is a founder of the literary website BeyondTheMargins.com, and lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children.
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Top Customer Reviews
Kate Spencer is given a trunk filled with the diaries and journals that her late friend, Elizabeth, left for her as stated in her will. Kate takes them with her on Great Rock Island where she spends the summer with her husband Chris and their two young children. The diaries cover the life of Elizabeth from her sad childhood to present day, and Kate discovers things she never knew about her friend. The diaries help Kate re-evaluate her own life and make decisions about things she's been procrastinating.
Bernier's writing quickly drew me in. Initially, the heavy topics slowed down my reading as I dived in, and I found I could read only a few chapters at a time. Then about half-way through I was invested in the characters and finished fairly quickly. There were times when I was frustrated with Kate for not giving Chris a chance as a supporting partner. The story takes place shortly after the 911 terrorist attacks and because they live in Washington D.C. Kate feels unsafe. She's afraid to show Chris her vulnerability, her neediness and her fear for her family and for him when he travels. Reading the diaries made Kate realize she needed to take that risk to expose her true feelings so they could keep growing as a couple and cement their trust for one another while living at a time when trust was difficult.Read more ›
I alternated between finding this novel extremely depressing and hopeful and uplifting. These two women didn't really know each other at all - but how well do we ever really know someone? Our best friends? Husbands? Wives? And I found it really sad. To reveal our true selves takes courage and this novel follows one woman's struggles to cope not only with the loss of her best friend, but 9-11 which occurred a short time later. As she reads, Kate begins to realize how little she knew Elizabeth and when she begins questioning her own life the journals help her come to terms with the debilitating fear she keeps hidden and struggles with in private.
The idea of leaving journals behind is something I've struggled with personally, so I found the exploration of how to dispose of them fascinating. I've kept journals off and on since childhood and I certainly don't relish the thought of having anyone read them. The thought actually makes me nauseous and desperate to detonate them. But then again, maybe those closest to me would finally understand the real me, even if it wasn't what they wanted to hear.
Elizabeth D is a reminder that we are all complex, multi faceted people and that when we get comfortable with one side of a person, we may never look to see other sides or see how they may be struggling.Read more ›
Elizabeth has died a year earlier (at the age of 37, no less) and her family, and especially her best friend Kate, continue to idealize her as the perfect woman. It doesn't help that she died a month before September 11, 2001, in an unrelated plane crash, so the grief over her death becomes mixed in and intensified with the grief of the nation. When Kate learns that the task has fallen to her to read and sort through Elizabeth's journals--twenty-five years worth of them--she is faced with a very different image of her friend. It turns out Elizabeth had so many secrets that Kate starts to wonder if she ever really knew her at all.
Told in both diary excerpts and third person narrative,The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is the sort of novel that women will pass around and discuss (I'm not saying men won't like it--I really don't know--but the book is truly about being a woman, being a wife and a mother, and the relationships between women and their female friends). At the very least, it's the sort of book that made me want to call my female friends and make sure they're okay. Really okay.
Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Now here's a mystery terraced like a mountainside farm. The two main characters are Kate, who's been willed the journals, and Elizabeth who died. Others include Elizabeth's widowed husband Dave and Kate's husband, Chris. Their respective set of children and assorted friends make up the backdrop for Kate's journey to understand a friend she thought she knew. Why was Elizabeth apparently cheating on her husband? Who is this guy Michael she was flying off to see? Was the plane crash part of a morality play--See what happens when you screw around on your spouse? Why in the world would she will her journals to her friend? Why to anyone? Maybe they contain the reasons she hopped on a plane to meet Michael and wanted someone to understand her rendezvous.
Since I'm a mystery fan, I was drawn in by the way the clues were patiently revealed in Elizabeth's diaries (when she was younger) and later in her journals as she matured. Not only does Kate discover a friend she thought she knew, she also finds an unfiltered opinion of herself. Author Nichole Bernier shows how innocent actions can be hurtful to a friend, and instead of confrontation the friend bleeds in her journal and delivers a judgment of you in writing. You dismissed a thought, an offer, recognition of a talent and all the clues your friend sent you are never noticed. So, yeah, you don't know her well at all, and, she may just understand something about you that you'd rather not see yourself. Is that why Kate is given Elizabeth's diaries and journals?
Part of an identity is defined in terms of one's friends, but what happens when that friend is not who you think? Does this mean that you are not who you think you are? Further, why keep a journal? Obviously, it's to record uncensored thoughts and feelings without a judgmental referee, but isn't that what friends are for? Is your journal really your BFF? If that's true, then who and what are you?
Author Bernier successfully gives voice to women who are caught up in a world with contradictory demands on who they are. The work of a mom is a mix of play days, big pockets to carry treats, toys and Kleenex, and every single piece of stupid advice on how to best nurture their brood. Then what was that time in college all about? Unless you majored in Home Ec, you prepared for someone you are not. Women talk about these things, sort of and sometimes, but it can be too painful to bring up during play day. After all, you don't want to be a bad mom, especially since you've got the big pockets to prove you're not. Moms and play days are good; so let's not bring up what-if about other careers and selves.
While the play day connections are essential because the other women in the group have a common experience, they are minefields. Bring up a career out of mom-hood, and you might hurt someone's sensitivities because they want to know that being a mom is worthwhile. Maybe they want to believe that it's all they want to be. Then, someone "Gets you," and you two can connect on a level that's unavailable in the play day crowd. You can become friends--beautiful, whole friends that you trust to understand you, and they trust you to understand them.
As a man reading this book, I felt both fascinated and uncomfortable. Sylvia Plath comes to mind as the closest I've read to the honesty displayed by Nichole Bernier in a woman's voice. (I was equally fascinated and uncomfortable reading Plath's work.) The fascination was in the directness of expression of deeply felt emotions, which, of course, jangled one of my guy-nerves making me uncomfortable. Women will probably feel otherwise.
The observation, "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans," reflects some of the experiences voiced here. Bernier's work is not cynical, but it scrapes away the fear of expression about a topic that is the life of many women. It sets a nice direction for an open and frank discussion of life seen from a viewpoint that values a self in often contradictory but essential roles.
Kate Spencer and Elizabeth Martin had been friends for 5 years, bonding over their children's playgroup meetings and backyard picnics, until Elizabeth's untimely death in a plane crash. To everybody's surprise, Kate--and not Elizabeth's husband-- is entrusted with her friend's diaries and her last wish for Kate to read them and decide the diaries ultimate fate.
Her friend's death and her journal entries touched a nerve in Kate, who has reached a crossroad in her marriage. As she reads the diaries, she is compelled to examine the whys of her own choices in her life. The journals revealed a person Kate has not known. The Elizabeth she knew was calm and thoughtful. She was the ideal mother, wife, and friend. Under the unassuming exterior had existed another Elizabeth, a passionate but repressed artist, weighed down by guilt while surviving loss and betrayal.
Ms. Bernier's novel is sure to speak to readers at many levels because the deferrals and sacrifices Kate and Elizabeth made reflect not just the contemporary stay-at-home mother vs. the career woman views, but also how much we are shaped by outside forces, the circumstances we find ourselves in and the inherent unpredictability of life. In the process, we put aside those pieces of ourselves that no longer fit the reality of the moment and we go about our day showing what we deem acceptable to others.
I like the significance that journal writing is given in "The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D." In these times when people put their every detail of their lives out on the Web to be bragged about, examined, judged or liked by thousands of strangers; it is not surprising how Kate is both puzzled and at awe at the existence of Elizabeth's diaries and the honesty of the entries written not for applause or for critique but as bridges to the real self.
Ms. Bernier has done a great job at creating complex characters that show readers that we are more than the roles we assume day to day. At the same time, we don't always get to choose them nor do we play them as easily as we wish we could. As Kate learns, we come to understand that people's lives unfold not so much steered by what you want to do but rather as Kate's friend, Max, wisely reminds her, by "growing into what you had to do."
After awhile, I lost interest. The book started to drag. The diary entries came less frequently and were replaced with long explanations of Kate's thought processes, but they were mostly centered around herself and her life with her husband and children. She uses Elizabeth's memoirs to understand her own life, and the more she does this, the less dependent she becomes on Elizabeth's for guidance.
The problem with this for me was that I didn't particularly like Kate, and I wanted to know more about Elizabeth. Toward the end of the novel, I was just skimming, forcing myself to finish. I did, and the ending was just as unsatisfying as I thought it would be.
If Kate were a real person, I'd be happy that she found clarity through her friend's personal thoughts, but no more interested in her. And she's not a real person, so writing about her self discovery seemed all the more pointless, especially since I wasn't a fan of Kate.
The author takes you into not only the complicated lives that we all live and the layers that make up not only the person others see but who we really are. It is interesting that through the gift of the written word Kate is able to see not only the troubled existence of her dear friend but admit her own shortcomings that she has dealt with as well.
That is where the author gets us: she uses the gift of fiction and storytelling to allow us to see that behind everything around us there is an authenticity that is often hiding just beyond the surface. Sometimes we are able to let it come through, but other times we find it necessary to keep it buried, and the latter can be something that ultimately destroys us.
I found myself wrapped up in the life of Elizabeth and the juggling act that she found herself engaged in. Overall, though, I think Kate nails the lessons of her dear friend by saying that sometimes the hardest thing for us to be and accept is ourselves. Who can't agree with that?
Beautifully delivered and packed with lessons and entertainment, Nichole Bernier takes readers into life's true meaning with this literary gift.