Review: THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D

“Kate sat quietly on the deck amid the noise. The sense of the missing member of the party was a fog low over the patio, changing the look and feel of everything.”

Nichole Bernier, THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., by Nichole Bernier, was published in June and is 320 pages. Nichole is a contributor to the blog Beyond the Margins. I first “met” Nichole on Twitter and then in person at a local signing, where I bought the book.

Set during the summer after the September 11th attacks and in the past by way of a set of journals bequeathed to a woman by her friend, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is a story about how much we keep from others and the cost of our secrets.

The novel begins as Kate and her family drive to the home of Dave Martin, the widower of her friend Elizabeth who has recently died in a plane crash. To everyone’s confusion, Elizabeth has left her precious journals she has kept over her entire life to Kate, and said that Kate would know what to do with them. The trouble is Kate hasn’t seen her friend much since she moved to Washington DC, and doesn’t feel she has had an intimate enough relationship with Elizabeth to deserve such a special part of her. Dave is not pleased with Kate taking the journals, and he’s hurt that his wife didn’t trust him enough to leave the journals to him, but Kate takes the trunk of Elizabeth’s writings with her on vacation to Great Rock Island.

As her family settles into beach life around her and her husband works remotely from the island, Kate becomes absorbed by the journals that reveal more secrets about her friend than she was prepared to read. Every new revelation raises more and more questions, and the effect of Elizabeth’s writing on her friend is profound. Kate starts questioning her own role in her family as she learns about Elizabeth’s, and her own marriage and family life begin to show signs of strain. Even after she closes the last page of the last journal in her possession, Kate still struggles to find the meaning of her inheritance and her own purpose.

Bernier’s gift for presenting family life and tension is matched by the perfect pacing of the novel, and the journal entries of Elizabeth are woven throughout with precision and skill. Kate’s awakening occurs as Elizabeth questions her own life. Their struggles are those of the modern woman trying to find balance in her work and in her family life, and Bernier handles the issue with grace, honesty, and authenticity.

The most beautiful aspect of the book is the way Kate opens up with each passing chapter. As she learns of Elizabeth’s secret desire to exhibit her artwork or to be remembered by her talents, Kate herself becomes one of Elizabeth’s projects. Kate’s reading of the journals becomes a conversation between two friends who didn’t have the opportunity or courage to share so intimately when both of them were alive. The novel shows the ability of love to continue to exist even after our loved ones have gone.

Fans of J. Courtney Sullivan will love The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. It is a powerful debut by a gifted author, and I can’t wait for more.

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