It is the summer of 2002, and the world is a far different place than it was just one year prior. The events of September 11, 2011, impacted everyone, but for Kate Spenser, who had recently relocated to Washington, D.C., the changes came just two months after another catastrophic loss. In July 2001, her best friend, Elizabeth Martin, was killed in an airplane crash, leaving behind her husband, Dave, and their three small children. The youngest, Emily, was just a few months old at the time of Elizabeth’s death.
As the summer begins, Kate and her husband, Chris, are preparing to spend seven weeks at the cottage on Great Rock Island they have rented every summer for the past decade. There, Chris will work from home when not traveling on business, while Kate enjoys time with James, age six, and four-year-old Piper. En route, they stop at the Martins’ to retrieve the antique chest filled with journals that Elizabeth specifically bequeathed to Kate’s safekeeping. Elizabeth wrote, “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. I’ll come soon to drop off a letter for her that should go with it.”
The first entry in the first journal is dated April 12, 1976. Elizabeth was just twelve years old. As Kate reads, she realizes how little she really knew about her friend’s life. After all, they were friends for five years, having met as members of a children’s playgroup. The experience causes Kate to ponder not just about Elizabeth’s life and all the secrets that are revealed as she reads, but also her own life and relationship with her husband, Chris, particularly in a post-9/11 world fraught with distrust, anxiety, and the new and unfamiliar certainty that there are some aspects of life over which one has absolutely no control.
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is author Nichole Bernier’s first novel, but I truly hope it will not be her last, because I cannot wait to read more from this gifted and insightful writer. Author J. Courtney Sullivan perfectly describes the book as “both a compelling mystery and a wise meditation on friendship, marriage and motherhood in an age of great anxiety.”
Kate and Elizabeth had much in common. Both left successful careers to become stay-at-home wives and mothers. Both women loved their careers and found the decision to leave their work behind, even if temporarily, wrenching, even though they actively worked to tamp down the resentment that sometimes eked its way into their consciousness. They were both determined to be the best possible mothers they could be. In Elizabeth’s case, although Kate did not realize it at the time, she was struggling to ensure that the events and troubled relationships of her youth had no impact on her own children. Amid a group of mothers bringing their children to play dates where they talked incessantly about child-reading and all that entails, Kate and Elizabeth found commonality and mutual support.
It was all so exhausting, trying to be understood. . . . The work to reach the knowing was exhausting, not the forgiving. That seemed to happen on its own.~~ The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Bernier compassionately explores the question of just how well it is possible to really know another human being sans judgment or semonizing. Rather, she uses Kate’s sequential reading of Elizabeth’s journals as a literary tool by which to juxtapose the internal turmoil Kate is feeling not just about the loss of her friend, but also the altered world in which we all found ourselves on September 11, and every day thereafter. As Kate relaxes at the cottage during the long, luxurious days of summer vacation, she finds herself obsessively reading the journals, trying to make sense of her relationship with Elizabeth, as well as her own life. She has been offered the chance to return to work as a pastry chef, and experiences the too-familiar angst that comes from wanting to have both a thriving career and successful home life with her husband and children, but not seeing a way to realistically balance both given that Chris often travels around the world for business. Kate’s consternation is magnified by the ongoing news reports — that she scrupulously attempts to avoid — about terror threats, anthrax, and all of the other issues that were unknown to any of us before that life-altering September day. She finds herself contemplating which of her children’s schools she would run to first should Washington, D.C. come under attack and fixates on the terrible day when the subway was evacuated as the result of a bomb scare. Protecting her children from dangers seen and unseen has never been more important, and she ruminates about how she can do that successfully if she opts to divide her attention between home and work, while being forced to confront the fact that so much of life is utterly beyond one’s control.
At the outset, Bernier expertly establishes a mysterious twist to Elizabeth’s final days: She was on a plane bound for California to meet a man named Michael. In the days leading up to the crash, she writes about meeting with him, as well as her hopes and dreams. It is clear that for Elizabeth, the trip had the potential to bring massive change to her life. But what kind of change? Kate thought Elizabeth and Dave had a stable, happy marriage, and appreciated the depth of Elizabeth’s love and devotion to her children, so it is incomprehensible that Michael might have been Elizabeth’s lover for whom she might have contemplated leaving her husband. The questions concerning Michael and the purpose of Elizabeth’s fateful departure loom large. As those questions compel Kate to keep reading the journals in search of answers, Bernier edges the story along, simultaneously galvanizing reader interest.
Along with the primary question, Bernier also posits a meatier one: How much of ourselves do we allow others to see, understand, and appreciate? Kate also grapples with that conundrum as she learns more about Elizabeth and considers the thorny issue of why Elizabeth chose to leave the journals to her, rather than her own husband. Kate reflects on her friend’s description of her as “fair and sensitive,” and wonders why Elizabeth was certain she would know what ultimately should become of the journals as being in possession of them weighs down her spirit. Chris is frustrated by her obsession with them and Dave appears to resent the fact that Elizabeth left them to Kate, rather than him, straining their relationship, as well.
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is beautifully written and, for that reason, not a quick read. Readers will likely find themselves going back and rereading portions again as the mystery of Elizabeth’s journey is revealed gradually, as well as to savor Bernier’s evocative descriptions of the two protagonists’ emotions. Bernier says that the book is an homage to two women whose lives ended before their children reached adulthood. A fitting tribute it is, characterized by a deep appreciation of the inner struggles of women balancing work and family in the post-9/11 twenty-first century that is rarely conveyed with such beautiful and poignant prose. The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. earns my highest recommendation and is one of my favorite books of 2012.