Outing one’s innermost thoughts is a dangerous business, even in flowery books locked and kept hidden.The confessor shall die eventually, leaving the next of kin with a dilemma. Read or ignore? And what happens when the person revealed in the writing is different, and startlingly so, from the person you thought that you knew?
This quandary is the foundation of Nichole Bernier’s engaging first novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. An engrossing study of female friendship and the toll motherhood exacts from the ambitious, it is a smart story told flawlessly by a writer well-traveled in the thematic territory.
The Elizabeth D. of the title is dead, lost in a plane crash that occurred a month before 9/11. The mother of three young children, she bequeathed a trunk full of journals dating to childhood to Kate, a playgroup friend. Kate accepts it reluctantly and, per instructions from Elizabeth’s lawyer, begins reading the journals from the beginning. But Kate, like Elizabeth’s husband, Dave, is deeply troubled by the revelation that the dead woman had been on the plane headed to a rendezvous with a mysterious man, not a painting workshop, as she’d told her family.
Reading the journals is difficult, not only because of Kate’s discomfort with what the writing reveals, but because of the growing antagonism from Elizabeth’s husband, as well as Kate’s own mate. At stake is Elizabeth’s reputation and legacy, the validity of the bereaved family’s foundation, and Kate struggles with the choice of whether to destroy the journals or return them to Dave. But the journals have repercussions beyond Elizabeth’s family, as they increasingly take over Kate’s thoughts, casting doubt on the authenticity of her own relationships and eroding the sense of safety and predictability that she had thought governed her own life.
Set in the Northeastern corridor in the years after 9/11, the novel incorporates real-life events, such as the anthrax scare and the Bali bombing, reminding us of what it felt like to live in a time in which the slightest unfamiliar noise or package put the country on edge. Beyond the themes of friendship and secrets, it explores, through Elizabeth’s journal entries and Kate’s actions, the competing philosophies of the randomness of events versus the methodical unfolding of destiny. Through the journals, Kate watches the intellectual evolution of a woman whom, it turns out, she hardly knew.
This is a book for and about women, although to call it “chick lit” would be a mistake. It’s too thoughtful for that diminutive, and while the trajectory of the novel is not wholly unexpected, the characters are dense and compelling, the language fresh and devoid of cliché. Bernier’s descriptives of everyday family life are lovely, as this observation of a child building a sandcastle on the shore: “But the moat would not hold; the rut absorbed every kelpy load poured in. Back and forth to the water front she went, Sisyphus with ponytails, each bucketful soaked in before she returned with another that would do the same.”
Despite the consistently elegant prose, it’s hard to envision a male reader, or a single woman without children, enthralled by the story. Bernier reaches far and wide, but, like a distended Slinky, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. always shrinks back to its original shape, which is a literary dissection of a friendship between two married mothers trying to avoid the “domestic coma” that is the plague of suburban family life. But for the genre, it’s as good as it comes. A cautionary tale, too, reminding day-in the-life scribes to be cautious about what we reveal in our journals. B+ —Jennifer Graham