How well can you really know a person?
That’s the question at the heart of “The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.,” the debut novel from Nichole Bernier.
Set in New England in summer 2002, the novel speaks both to friendship and to how we shape and maintain a sense of self, of how the identities we admit to ourselves sometimes stand in stark contrast to those we present to even our closest loved ones.
The novel opens with protagonist Kate Spenser reeling from both post-9/11 paranoia and the recent unexpected death of her best friend, the titular Elizabeth. After Elizabeth is killed in a plane crash a month before 9/11, Kate is bequeathed her journals dating to childhood, accompanied only by the instruction to “start at the beginning.”
Infusing the novel with a sense of mystery is the request by Elizabeth’s husband that Kate use the journals to learn the identity of a man referred to only as “Michael,” whom Elizabeth was flying to see (unbeknownst to her family) on the doomed plane.
Upon receiving the notebooks, Kate finds herself wondering (about her best friend, no less) “what such an uncomplicated person could have written.” But while she initially approaches the task pondering how to juggle her own sense of morality with feelings of loyalty to her friend, Kate eventually learns as much about herself as a wife and mother through the journals as she does about Elizabeth.
“The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.” makes for a good summer read; though not necessarily light fare, the narrative breezes along, and while Bernier weaves in thought-provoking observations on marriage, friendship, and working mothers, she does so within a story line that never drags.
While the book revolves around Kate, Bernier shares Elizabeth’s story both through her journal entries and through descriptions of key events in her life, literally bringing the character to life and giving the reader a full sense of her as a person.
Eventually, it becomes apparent that the title refers not only to Elizabeth’s journals, but also to her struggle to balance family and career, with the former eventually winning out. Bernier neither directly criticizes nor endorses the idea of stay-at-home motherhood, but does not shy away from exploring the conflicts some women experience when they decide to devote their time to child-rearing rather than professional work. As a new mother, Elizabeth speaks of her work as “something all my own, a part of me that isn’t given over to nursing or laundry. . . . It’s the one tiny vestige of myself in a day where everything feels like it’s about someone else.”
As for Kate, her personal sense of loss after the death of her best friend is only exacerbated by the larger sense of mourning and insecurity felt across the nation after 9/11. She feels “a growing panic that at any moment something could go very wrong. . . . Danger was everywhere and nowhere, immediate and elusive, and no one was prepared.” She embodies that unique 21st-century feeling of working against some imaginary clock whose time is set to expire, unannounced, at any moment.
In painting such vivid portraits of her two main characters, Bernier allows her readers to empathize with Kate when she finally reaches the end of Elizabeth’s journals — though her questions are answered, there still lingers a sense of incompleteness and loss.
Liz Raftery, a freelance writer based in New York, can be reached at elizabeth.raftery@