Published in 2012 by Crown Publishers. 309 pages.
From the book jacket: 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.
Epigraph: An excerpt from "Letter Much Too Late" - an essay by Wallace Stegner about his mother, written sixty years after she’d died, when Stegner was eighty:
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.First paragraph: The George Washington Bridge had never been anything but strong and beautiful, its arches monumental, cables thin and high. Kate watched them spindling like ribs past the car window as her husband drove eastbound across the span. It was a testimony to optimism, a suspension bridge, each far-fetched plate, truss, and girder an act of faith against gravity and good sense.
What I thought about the writing: An experienced magazine writer and editor, Nichole Bernier has readily applied her skills to her debut novel. With beautiful prose, she tells of Kate, who receives, following the sudden death of her friend Elizabeth, a trunk filled with Elizabeth's journals. Kate's story alternates between her actions in the present, as she reads Elizabeth's journals during her summer vacation, and her memories of Elizabeth and of her earlier life. It comes together in a stream-of-consciousness that reminded me of how my own mind works. Periodically interspersed in the third person narrative are excerpts from Elizabeth's journals themselves, and this epistolary form allows the reader insights into Elizabeth's life at the same time that Kate struggles to reconcile the woman she knew with the woman in the journal pages.
What I thought about the setting: Set in the summer following the September 11 attacks on the United States, the novel uses the general anxiousness of that time to add to the complexity of Kate's emotions after Elizabeth's death. Before I started reading, I had expected that Elizabeth's death occurred on 9-11. Initially I wondered why Bernier had complicated the story by having that event in the background, but I think it adds an emotional layer to the plot. The location of present-day action is also used effectively. Having Kate read the journals in a vacation house on beautiful Great Rock Island provides a nice juxtaposition to the anxiety and turmoil of coming to terms with her questions about Elizabeth - and the issues the journals raise in Kate's own life. By the way, I read a good chunk of this novel while on my own vacation, sitting in a beautiful garden; it was a lovely way to spend an afternoon!
What I thought about the themes: The best novels, in my opinion, are those that keep me thinking long after I finish the last page. The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is such a book simply because of its many thought-provoking themes. Family. Friendship. Motherhood. Marriage. Stories. Secrets. Loss. And - most poignant for me - choice. An early passage provided a preview of what was to come:
"What are you guys talking about?" [Kate's young son] James asked.Later, we read Elizabeth's words:
"Just debating what we should do tomorrow," Kate said.
"I want to go to the beach. And play miniature golf," said James. "One in the morning, one in the afternoon. Then swim."
"Well, you can't do it all. Sometimes" - [Kate's husband] Chris wiped his mouth and glanced at Kate - "you have to make a choice."
Every day consists of these tiny choices with 57,000 trickle-down effects. You catch a different subway and brush against a stranger with meningitis, or make eye contact with someone you fall in love with, or buy a lotto ticket in this bodega instead of that one and totally cash in, or miss the train that ends up derailing. Everything is so [freaking] arbitrary. Every move you make and a million ones you don't all have ramifications that mean life or death or love or bankruptcy or whatever. It could paralyze you if you let it. But you have to live your life. What's the alternative?
A brief note on content: If this novel were a movie, it would probably have a PG-13 rating - so although the passage I just quoted includes the f-word, profanity isn't pervasively used in the novel. Neither are there any explicit sexual situations or violence. I know that others are sometimes uncomfortable with content that I find acceptable - but I don't think most readers will be offended by the content of this book.
What some others have said about this book: Cindi aka Utah Mom said, "This contemporary piece of literature is honest, passionate and timely from a debut author." (Her full review is here.) Alison of Alison's Book Marks wrote, "A beautiful novel. At once an ode to friendship and a page-turning mystery." (Her full review is here.) Devourer of Books said that the book will "spark questions relevant to the reader’s own life." (Her full review is here.) Nancy Robertson reviewed the book for The Washington Post here.
For more information: Nichole Bernier's website is here. Her Facebook page is here.
To share in the love of a good book: Somewhat reluctantly - because I think I might want to re-read this one - I'm going to pass along my gently used copy of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. to a randomly-selected reader of my blog. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment on this post by Wednesday, August 15. (U.S. residents only, please.)
A final thought: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. would be an awesome book club pick - and there is a Book Club Discussion Guide here.