The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. – Nichole Bernier
Reviewed By: Sheri de Grom
Elizabeth died in a commercial plane crash the summer after 9/11 and she’s left her journals to her best friend, Kate Spencer. Journals she began in childhood.
I immediately related to both Elizabeth and Kate. I’ve kept journals for as long as I can remember. In the beginning, they were diaries. Does anyone remember those pink ones decorated with hearts and fairies that you could lock with a key? I wrote in mine everyday, and faithfully locked it—never once forgetting to hide it between my mattress and box-springs. Did I really believe my older brothers cared about what their little sister wrote after Mom and Dad said, “Lights out?”
Later I graduated to journaling in most anything that would hold the pages together. How I escaped finding Levenger’s leather-bound refillable journals until my forties, I have no idea. I’m now of the opinion I need twelve-step meetings because I’m addicted to Levenger’s high-end writing-products. But I digress.
Kate, along with her husband Chris and their two children, snags the family’s annual monthly rental cottage for seven weeks at the beach on Great Rock Island. Who could pass up such a deal? Seven weeks for the price of their usual one month fee. After Chris uses up his vacation time, he’ll have to work from their cottage but that’s better than going back to DC, where they live.
En route to the beach, they passed through New York where they used to live and where Kate and Elizabeth had become best friends.
When Elizabeth died the previous summer, she left behind her husband, Dave, and their three small children. Everyone’s still unsettled, including Kate.
. . . Pg3 [Kate pulled out the note the lawyer had forwarded to her in lieu of any other instructions . . . . . A small antique key was taped to a note card. There’s something I’d like to add to the bequests section of the will. Please amend it so that Katherine Spencer gets my trunk of journals. In whatever legal language is appropriate, please indicate that I’m leaving them to her because she’s fair and sensitive and would know what should be done with them, and ask that she start at the beginning.] . . .
Elizabeth’s husband, Dave, wasn’t supposed to read anything written in the diaries. He knew they were clearly off-limits. He tells Kate, when she picks the diaries up, that he couldn’t resist the final, partially written-in diary and he now knows Elizabeth wasn’t going to California for a painting workshop, but to have an affair.
Kate refuses to believe this about her friend. She would have known, wouldn’t she? Once, when Kate and Elizabeth had been walking on the beach together, Elizabeth had casually mentioned something about a Michael—but darn. Why hadn’t she paid more attention to what Elizabeth was saying?
Kate reads the diaries chronologically as her best friend asked—it’s hard. She wants to rush ahead. Elizabeth had to have her reasons for making the request.
Kate thinks back to her own decision of marrying Chris. It had been an easy decision. Like Elizabeth, she’d given up her career and traveling to exotic locations with Chris when he was on assignment. After their son was born, Kate had to stay home. She didn’t feel resentment, did she?
Kate recognizes she hadn’t known Elizabeth at all. Had resentment built up in her friend? The Elizabeth that Kate knew—the one willing to lead all the play groups, never hesitated to do what had to be done, had the perfect back-yard set-up for children, and a smile always appeared to be her resting expression. If being part of a group had not come naturally she must have had a lot of practice somewhere along the line or she hid it well.
. . . Pg61 Chris [leaned back in his chair, crossed his hands over his stomach. “You were reading those journals pretty late again last night,” he said.
“She picked up the bottle and poured a small amount in her glass, then tipped the last into his. “It’s strange, reading about the way a person thinks her life is going to go and she has no idea what’s coming. When Elizabeth was young she really loved art. She wanted to be a painter in New York.”]. . .
Kate tells Chris she feels like she’s reading about a stranger and not her best friend. She doesn’t know this woman who wrote these journals. Chris is agitated that Kate won’t put the journals down. She tries—her mind swirls and thinks about her own life and the choices she’s made. Has she hidden herself from others? Did she share all of herself with Elizabeth?
Do you think about the day when you might be unable to pick up the telephone and call your best friend? The one you laugh and cry with, the one who supposedly knows more about you than maybe even you know? The friend who understands when you want to be quiet even when she’s bursting with boundless energy.
Nichole Bernier writes . . . Pg131 [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.]. . .
The seven weeks Kate and her family are at the beach are to give Kate a much needed restorative time after Elizabeth’s death. But, Kate has no one to talk to about her new thoughts and feelings—the only person she wants to talk with is Elizabeth, and Elizabeth is dead. Kate feels worse now than at the beginning of summer.
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. resonated with me and specific scenes still follow me around and haunt me with their mystery. I finished reading the novel several weeks ago. But that’s what I like the most in a novel. I want a meaty read. Words to ponder and think about—words that must be allowed to filter into my inner core and absorbed. Nichole Bernier’s debut novel is set at the beach but it is not what we often refer to as a beach read. This book, while having romance, is a work of substance. It borders heavily on the side of literary, yet is easily readable. It’s also a mystery—there’s something for everyone. This book consumed me.
The story of Kate and the journals of Elizabeth ask us to look inside ourselves. Do we portray who we really are? Do we know?
Emotions are gripping from the beginning and they build until the end. Kate is obsessed with Elizabeth’s journals and the more she reads, the more she cannot join her family and participate in their vacation.
The Unfinished Work Of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier is a must read. The substance makes it a great for book group. It’s a natural for any book seller that enjoys hand selling to individual customers. I recommend this debut novel unconditionally. It’s one of my top picks of the year and I believe it will easily earn a place within my personal top ten novels of 2012.