“Summer vacation on Great Rock Island was supposed to be a restorative time for Kate, who’d lost her close friend Elizabeth in a sudden accident. But when she inherits a trunk of Elizabeth’s journals, they reveal a woman far different than the cheerful wife and mother Kate thought she knew.
The complicated portrait of Elizabeth—her troubled upbringing, and her route to marriage and motherhood—makes Kate question not just their friendship, but her own deepest beliefs about loyalty and honesty at a period of uncertainty in her own marriage.
The more Kate reads, the more she learns the complicated truth of who Elizabeth really was, and rethinks her own choices as a wife, mother, and professional, and the legacy she herself would want to leave behind. When an unfamiliar man’s name appears in the pages, Kate realizes the extent of what she didn’t know about her friend, including where she was really going on the day she died.”
Thoughts: Nichole Bernier’s The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is like reading two stories in one. Elizabeth’s story, as told through her journal entries, is more about her journey through life and the compromises she chose to make along the way. In and of itself, Elizabeth’s experiences are fascinating, intimate, and immensely relatable. Kate’s story is a bit more convoluted but just as satisfying as she seeks to reconcile her previous understanding of her friend with the revelations uncover by reading her journals. In addition, Kate’s discoveries force her to reevaluate her own path through life, leading her to some uncomfortable truths about herself and about her relationships.
Kate is a delightful character, but there is a quality about her that makes her slightly exaggerated, especially in light of Elizabeth’s earnestness. Through the medium of her journal entries, a reader gets to know Elizabeth as fully and completely as a person can, as journal entries by their very nature are one of the few methods by which someone exposes his or her innermost thoughts and deepest secrets. In direct counterpoint to this stark sincerity is Kate’s less satisfying and somewhat disturbing failure to recognize the truth within her own mind. Her paranoia, which she refuses to acknowledge to herself let alone to anyone else, becomes somewhat ridiculous when a reader considers Elizabeth’s honesty. While not a fair comparison, especially because a reader only gets to know Elizabeth so well because of her death, one cannot help but make the comparison just the same. Elizabeth at least is able to recognize her failings and through her writing discusses how much she has to work to overcome them. Kate appears incapable of doing so throughout much of the novel, and it is this difference which causes most of a reader’s consternation over her character.
It was a surprise to realize that The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is more a story about Kate’s awakening than it is about Elizabeth’s untold story, and a reader cannot help but feel somewhat disappointed at this awareness. While Kate is an admirable character, Elizabeth is so deliciously complicated that Kate tends to pale in comparison. Yet, the power of the story lies in the fact that Kate’s story is not over and will continue to meander through life’s complicated path. Elizabeth’s story is done. With her death, there is no chance to see her grow and change any more than she already has. Because of this, it is on Kate where a reader eventually pins one’s hopes. If she can open her mind to the pain of self-awareness, then there is hope for everyone else to do the same.
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is a heartfelt study of life’s journey, the compromises we make along the way, and the secrets that we keep from our most beloved. Ms. Bernier skillfully presents two married couples who navigate through their issues but (thankfully) avoid the traps of adultery. Kate’s and Elizabeth’s very poignant adjustments to motherhood bring to the fore all of a reader’s own personal experiences with this ultimate life-changing event. Most importantly, Kate’s growing understanding of the complexity of her friend is a bold statement of just how much of our true selves we tend to hide from others, out of fear of ridicule or misunderstanding, and a great reminder that no one should have to shoulder any burden alone.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Crown Publishers for my review copy!