Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-05-21
- Reviewer: Staff
When Elizabeth dies in a plane crash a month before 9/11, her will designates her friend Kate as the recipient of her lifelong journals, in this tepid debut. Kate spends her family vacation during the summer of 2002 reading through Elizabeth's journals, discovering the truth about the woman she thought she had known. Elizabeth's history is full of secrets: a childhood accident, a decision to abandon her artistic studies to care for her mother, her relationship with her husband, and most curiously, the reason she was on that ill-fated August 2001 flight. Other than her time-appropriate anxieties about terrorism and loss, Kate is a pedestrian character, with quiet conflicts about her workaday marriage and thoughts of exchanging motherhood for a return to her career as a pastry chef. As a character, Elizabeth has more potential, but Kate's recaps of important events in Elizabeth's life, interspersed with brief passages from the diaries, feel journalistic and unfinished, like notes from a character study. Moments of beauty and depth of spirit will appeal to readers interested in secrets revealed, but the novel is slow and relies too heavily on introspection. Agent: Julie Barer. (June)
The story a woman leaves behind
Frequent Elle, Cond Nast Traveler and Self contributor Nichole Bernier takes a step away from nonfiction and arrives on the literary scene with an engrossing debut novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. This exquisite and honest portrait of friendship and motherhood unfurls a suspenseful plot whose jaw-dropping surprise ending is one that readers will be sure to discuss long after the book has been finished.
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. introduces readers to Kate Spenser, a mother balancing her career as a chef while simultaneously processing her grief over the loss of her friend Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s death in a freak plane accident means Kate has been bequeathed a large stack of journals chronicling Elizabeth’s life. Elizabeth’s instructions request that Kate “start at the beginning” and figure out how best to deal with them once she has finished reading the complete set.
It is with this heavy load that Kate retreats to her vacation rental home on Great Rock Island. While spending the summer with her children, she must decide if she is going to return to the restaurant trenches while also attempting to uncover the secret behind Elizabeth’s request. With an absent, working husband who travels continuously overseas as a hotel scout, Kate becomes more and more immersed in Elizabeth’s confessions, realizing that perhaps she never really knew her friend at all. And what is supposed to be a relaxing summer fills with tension as Elizabeth’s widowed husband pressures Kate to reveal his wife’s secrets, and Kate struggles to uncover what her own husband is hiding from her.
Bernier successfully explores how women manage to balance so much in their everyday life and the complicated emotions (guilt, frustration, fear) that go along with being a working mother. As Kate realizes there is more to Elizabeth than meets the eye, she is given the chance to uncover the truth not only about their friendship but also about herself. The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is an important read for anyone who dares to ask just how well we really know our friends and neighbors, and what those discoveries mean about us.
Read a Q&A with Nichole Bernier about The Unfinished Life of Elizabeth D.