The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., by first-time novelist Nichole Bernier, explores what happens when one best friend really learns about the other – posthumously – by reading her journals. How well do we really understand the people around us? And what do they really think of us?
Elizabeth is a mother of three in her late thirties who perishes in a plane crash shortly before 9/11. Her best friend Kate, who used to live near her in Connecticut but now lives in D.C., is bequeathed Elizabeth’s trunk full of journals in Elizabeth’s will. En route to spending the summer with her husband and kids at the beach, Kate picks up the journals from Elizabeth’s husband, who tells her that Elizabeth had been keeping a secret before she died. Her flight – the one that went down – was en route to California, where her husband suspected she was meeting a secret lover.
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is about Kate’s experience reading Elizabeth’s journals and learning about what brought Elizabeth to the point of taking that flight. The journals, which started when Elizabeth was in middle school, reveal a lot about Kate’s best friend that she didn’t know, and which paint her as a much more flawed and conflicted woman than the supermom Kate knew Elizabeth to be. And the journals raise in Kate a lot of the same feelings of conflict and identity that Elizabeth described in her journals. I don’t want to give away any more than that in terms of the plot.
I was very impressed with Bernier’s writing. From the little domestic details she peppered throughout the book to the spot-on depictions of parenting and the natural dialogue between spouses – Bernier really nailed it all. There is a twist at the end that I found underexplored and hastily added, but otherwise I think Bernier did a good job of testing the limits of friendship and loyalty, and asking how far we are willing to go to change ourselves into the person we feel we need to be to make those around us happy.
I was also especially moved by Bernier’s depiction of life after 9/11, and in particular life in Washington, DC after 9/11. I live in Washington, and remember those anxiety-filled years of anthrax scares and the feeling of living in a bullseye of danger. The undercurrent of paranoia and fatalism that ran through Kate’s thoughts was a familiar one.
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. was a very good read, especially given that it was Bernier’s first novel. Thank you to Crown Publishers for the review copy.