The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Title: The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Author: Nichole Bernier
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Publisher: Crown, 2012
Source: Finished copy from publisher
Read for: Review

After Kate's best friend, Elizabeth, dies in a plane accident shortly before September 11, she is entrusted with a trunk full of journals and instructed to start at the beginning. Jostled between Elizabeth's widower's feelings of betrayal that he wasn't given the journals, Kate's husband's confusion at why the task is so important to her, and Kate's uncertainty at how best to fulfill her friend's wishes, Kate devours each notebook and quickly realizes that the woman who was her best friend had many secrets. As Kate explores Elizabeth's journals, she re-evaluates her own experiences with working, motherhood, marriage, and self-discovery.

I thought The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. was beautiful and absolutely relevant to women in the America of today. I found myself underlining so many sentiments that struck a chord with me, from the difficulty of balancing motherhood with a career (and the unspoken expectation from society that it be performed flawlessly) to feeling the need to censor oneself in a world of shiny happy suburban women in designer clothes with designer homes, the novel explored many of the "mundane" problems of suburban life while managing to show that in reality, each life is unique and anything but mundane.

As I mentioned, many of the ideas Kate explores through Elizabeth's journals and her own life struck a chord with me. I'm not a mother yet and I'm not working yet, but the circumstances of my life for the next few years are seeming to indicate that I will be yet another of those women trying to do both, and I found the struggles and triumphs of both Kate and Elizabeth in both arenas to be enlightening. In addition, I found it interesting to read about the falseness of some of the relationships among the "play group" where Kate and Elizabeth met -- Elizabeth constantly describes comments and experiences as "precious," which I thought fitting. She describes feeling the need to always be appropriate, to be the person they expect her to be, and the difficulties of living life in that way from day to day. I don't necessarily agree with Elizabeth's (and to a lesser extent, Kate's) way of making over their lives to something polished and acceptable to the people who surround them, but it is definitely a pattern in today's society, and one that caused me to consider what truths I feel the need to gloss over when I am in "polite company."

I was impressed with Bernier's poignant and efficient writing. The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is not a long novel, but it covers a lot of ground by artfully showing specific scenes and actions that illustrate the counterpoint experiences of Kate and Elizabeth. Bernier's writing is clean and vivid, not littering the page with wordiness but not so sparse that it leaves unanswered questions, either.

Reading The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. was an engrossing, thought-provoking experience. It was easy to fall into the rhythmic cadences of the novel, but not always serene as Bernier stirred up questions and ideas that were certainly not always comfortable, but also difficult to ignore. I definitely enjoyed my experience with Bernier's debut novel and will be looking out for more of her work in the future.

4 stars

Warnings: Some language, mild, un-detailed sensuality


  1. I have this one on hold at the library and I wasn't sure what I'd be getting. I remember requesting it ages ago because it had received a lot of praise and featured something I find I read a lot of- secrets! I can say I'm looking forward to it much more than I was before reading your review. I may not be a mother, or one expecting, but I do see the expectations in society and have spoken with my own mother about these types of issues. Glad to see you enjoyed it!

    1. I thought it was really a lovely book. Nothing earth-shattering but just calm, quiet and beautiful. And I think while I reacted more strongly to it because I'm expecting a baby, I think the issues it raised are relevant to all women.


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