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The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.: A Novel
by Nichole Bernier

Published: 2013-03-12
Paperback : 336 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 3 of 5 members
Before there were blogs, there were journals. And in them we’d write as we really were, not as we wanted to appear. But there comes a day when journals outlive us. And with them, our secrets.
   Summer vacation on Great Rock Island was supposed to be a restorative time for Kate, ...
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Before there were blogs, there were journals. And in them we’d write as we really were, not as we wanted to appear. But there comes a day when journals outlive us. And with them, our secrets.
   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. 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. 
   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.

Now with Extra Libris material, including a reader’s guide and bonus content

Editorial Review

Author One-on-One: Nichole Bernier and Dani Shapiro

Dani ShapiroNichole Bernier

Dani Shapiro's most recent books include the novels Black & White and Family History and the best-selling memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion. She lives with her husband and son in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

Dani Shapiro: This is your first novel after years of being a magazine editor and writer. What made you decide to write this story? Joan Didion describes material she wants to write as having "a shimmer" around its edges. What was this shimmer for you?

Nichole Bernier: I have always been intrigued and haunted by the notion of legacy, the trace people leave behind once they're gone--how others define them, and what they've done to define themselves. I lost a friend in the September 11 terrorist attacks, and in the days afterward, I fielded the media calls for her husband so he wouldn't have to describe his loss repeatedly. I tried to offer short memorial statements that were meaningful and true but in the end they were still sound bites, and I couldn't stop wondering what would she have wanted said about her. What was the difference between the way I saw her, and the way she would have wanted to be seen, and remembered?

My book is not in any way about my friend, but grew out of the what-ifs: What if a mother left behind hints of a more complex and mysterious person than their loved ones thought they'd known? The shimmer for me was the incomplete obit, the discrepancy between the public and the private self. We all die with bits of our story untold.

DS: The backdrop of your novel is the year following terrorist attacks, a time that I've written about too. What made you choose that tumultuous period as your backdrop?

NB: That was an extraordinary time when it felt as if the range of threats--anthrax, mad cow disease, poisoned reservoirs--were not only possible, but likely. I was a new mother that year, and I think many of us had the impulse to grab our loved ones and run. But we didn't know where to go, or from what. Most of us moved on from that place of paralysis. But it was fascinating to me to create a character who could not: someone who was confident and competent, but felt the strain of keeping a family safe when no one knew where safe was.

DS: The spine of the story is the inheritance of a trunk of journals. This was an ambitious structure, and I'm curious why you chose it. Do you feel there's any correlation between journals and today's blogs? Or does today's blogosphere make journals seem historic and quaint?

NB: Initially, I thought of journals as a way to give voice to someone who was no longer living, and provide a source of strength to someone left behind, struggling in a world that felt dangerously arbitrary. I wove the two women's storylines to show how they might have had some of the same experiences, but perceived them differently. But it turned out to be more difficult than I thought; the parallel timelines had to consistently meet in some narrative way--thematically, or with some common event--so the reader would feel the way the friends connect, but also pass one another by.

The evolution of blogs has always been interesting to me. In journals, people are working through questions looking for comfort and insight, essentially asking themselves, What would the wisest person I know advise me on this? It's a conversation with the best part of oneself.

Blogs can be many things--entertaining, poignant, cathartic. But even with the most sincere of intentions, blogs are crafted with the consciousness of another reader. It's the difference between a candid photo and a portrait. Not much in our world is truly private anymore, which makes journals all the more rare.

DS: A big part of your novel concerns two mothers struggling to balance their jobs--or finding ways to keep a finger in work they loved--while being engaged in raising their children. As a mother of five, how do you manage both raising your kids and finding time to write?

NB: It's a challenge, and I won't pretend it's not. I'm not usually at the computer when ideas come along, so I jot notes on whatever scrap of paper happens to be nearby, and sometimes type on my cellphone when I pretend to be taking pictures on the soccer sidelines. Time is scarce and precious, so there's no room for procrastination anymore; when I sit down to write, I've been planning what to work on in advance. More than anything it helps to have a supportive spouse, and my husband knows the greatest gift is the gift of time.

Still, no matter how many kids you have or how supportive your partner, there are only 24 hours in a day, and being busy forces you to triage what you value most. After I started my novel most of my hobbies fell by the wayside. But it clarifies what's most important to you--to know, say, that you can enjoy life without making gourmet meals or running a marathon, but you can't not write.

I also think it's good for my children to see that their mother loves them and loves her work, too. In a way, the kids have come to feel an ownership in the writing life; we have a lot of events at our home, and the kids enjoy talking to authors and passing food trays. It has been fascinating to watch their evolving awareness of writers as real people behind the bylines--people who started out loving to read, just like they do.

A Reader’s Guide for The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.: A Novel, by Nichole Bernier

The questions and discussion topics below are designed to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Many of the characters in the novel keep substantial secrets from one another for a variety of reasons. Whose do you think is the most damaging, and why?

2. In the year following September 11th, Kate’s fears reached a boiling point where any danger seemed possible, and she was paralyzed by the responsibility of keeping her family safe. Could you relate to this sentiment, and in what ways do you think that has diminished for you and in society at large, more than a decade later?

3. Kate conceals her anxiety because she is afraid it will make her seem less strong and competent. Do you think this fear is still warranted in these times of widespread knowledge about depression and anxiety, or is there still a stigma?

4. Why do you think Elizabeth was so private about her sister, and about her aspirations for meaningful work? Why do you think she never confided in Kate (and others) about how important her work was to her, even though Kate herself was passionate about her work?

5. Do you think the difference between being a stay-at-home mom or a mother with a career outside the home still creates barriers between women? Do you think if women show too much passion for their work they can be perceived as less motherly? If you have belonged to a playgroup, PTA or other social organization of mothers, have you sensed tensions, stereotypes or expectations based on working status?

6. When Elizabeth is in high school, she concludes, “Smile, and the world likes you more.” Do you think that is true?

7. Elizabeth did not start out as a socially dexterous person likely to be the hub and social glue of a neighborhood mom’s group. At what point (or points) in her life did she make the conscious transition from loner to joiner? Have you ever done something like this?

9. Early in the novel, Kate wonders about what it would be like if she wandered into her husband’s home office some night to read silently while he worked--as they used to, earlier in marriage--instead of retreating to her own spot in the living room. “It was a gift, solitude. But solitude with another person, that was an art.” Do you agree? Do you think this becomes easier or harder after years as a couple?

10. Which of the two women’s storylines were you most interested in reading, and with which did you more closely identify?

11. What was your interpretation of Elizabeth’s feelings for Kate? Of Kate’s for Elizabeth?

12. If someone is shouldering a burden that would cause their family pain, do you think dealing with it silently is the most giving or the most selfish thing? Is it possible to be both at once?

10. Which of the two women’s storylines were you most interested in reading, and with which did you more closely identify?


June 2002


The George Washington Bridge had never been anything but strong and beautiful, its arches monumental, cables thin and high. Kate watched them spindling like ribs past the car window as her husband drove eastbound across the span. It was a testimony to optimism, a suspension bridge, each far- fetched plate, truss, and girder an act of faith against gravity and good sense.

The sun was strong, glinting off the bridge and hitting the river like shattered glass. Drivers traveling in both directions were shielding their eyes, staring as she was down the length of Manhattan. She didn’t know what any of them expected to see. Mushroom clouds? Skywriting in Arabic? She wished for some visible sign of drama where the towers had once stood. Then she looked toward Queens, even though it was impossible to see the site from this distance. Few people were even looking anymore, though she always would.

The car reached the end of the bridge and she exhaled. Chris glanced over and she faced the window with what she hoped looked like ordinary interest, damp- palmed hands loose in her lap.

He angled the rearview mirror to check the backseat. The children were still asleep.

“Has Dave gone back to work yet?” His voice was grave, in the way someone speaks about a bad diagnosis.

She put her foot up on the dash. “A few months ago. His company let him take as much time as he needed.”

Chris nodded, satisfied. It was the right thing for the company to do, and he liked when the right thing was done with a minimum of drama. “What’s he doing with the kids? Did she have family close by?”

“No. There’s no one.” A trickle of cool air from the vent brought gooseflesh to her leg. “He found a nanny through an agency.”

“It’s strange to think of Elizabeth’s kids with a nanny.”

That was the first thing she had thought too, like Julia Child farming out the cooking to a house keeper. “People do it all the time, Chris. Not everyone stays home with their kids.”

He looked over, gauging her. “You know that’s not what I meant, Kate.”

She turned back to the window and wiped the corner of her eye as if she were ridding it of an irritation. A nanny in Elizabeth Martin’s house. The obvious things weren’t what affected her most— the obituary, the service, even visiting the crash site, a charred hole in Queens that seemed inhospitable to anything ever being grown or built there again. The smaller details were the potent ones. Seeing the open can of infant formula on the Martins’ kitchen counter the first time she’d visited to help. Hearing that Jonah had lost his first tooth a few weeks ago, but Dave had forgotten to tell the tooth fairy. These were the things that gave certain days a dull ache she could not explain, or shake.

A sign ahead marked the turn toward Connecticut. If the parkway was less choked than the others there would be only an hour more. In the two years since they’d moved down to Washington, D.C., they had not found a good time of day or night to travel. Traffic on the Northeast Corridor was unrelenting. Tonight, they’d find some hotel around the Massachusetts border, and in the morning they would be on the first ferry to the island, seven weeks this summer instead of their usual two. If Chris had agreed because he knew how much Kate needed it, he hadn’t let on, and she wasn’t saying.

Dave had asked if they could stop for the trunk on the way through. She could not imagine having it on vacation with them, but Dave Martin now had that effect on people; they jumped, they put things on hold, they accommodated.

This would be the first time they would be getting together with the children but without Elizabeth. Kate and Chris hadn’t brought James and Piper when they came up for the funeral, a maudlin affair made worse by the baby in the front row drooling and pinwheeling her arms at the photo of her mother on an easel. Now the kids would be playing together like old times, but for the adults, all the roles would be unfamiliar. Dave would be host and hostess, Kate just a polite guest in the kitchen. He might jiggle the baby on one hip as he composed plates and poured small cups of milk, and Kate would offer help, trying not to sound as if she questioned his competence. She would have to be social glue for the men, who had only ever come together because of their wives, and someone would have to take the lead with the kids. We don’t throw sand at our friends, and It’s time to take turns with the backhoe. That had been Elizabeth’s job.

It had all been Elizabeth’s job.

As Chris turned the car from the interstate to the parkway, Kate pulled out the note the lawyer had forwarded to her in lieu of any other instructions. Its even script evoked the to- do lists always strewn across Elizabeth’s counter, the ticker tape of tasks to be done and groceries to be bought, looping in perfect penmanship. A small antique key was taped to the notecard. There’s something I’d like to add to the specific bequests section of the will. Please amend it so that Katherine Spenser gets my trunk of journals. 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 roadside clutter thinned near the Connecticut line, old tires and abandoned appliances giving way to birches, azaleas, road kill. Trees lined the median like suburban sentries. The sun hadn’t let up and Kate’s sunglasses weren’t doing much to cut the glare, reviving the headache she’d had on and off all day, and yesterday too. A two- day headache. Brain tumor, she thought. Ocular cancer. Aneurysm.

She lowered the window a few inches. A warm wind cleared the recirculated air and the smell of old peanut butter sandwiches.

Several things struck her each time she read Elizabeth’s note, one thing more than the rest. It wasn’t that Elizabeth had kept journals, though there was that, or the wonderment of what such an uncomplicated person could have written. Today I got Jonah and Anna to agree to turkey sandwiches in their lunchboxes. Or the realization that Elizabeth had been so phobic about flying; Kate knew she’d been a bit of a nervous flier, but enough to make a summer addendum to her will before she traveled? And it wasn’t the contradiction that she had been meticulous enough to name a trustee for her journals, but had never followed through with the letter expressing her intentions. What struck Kate most was a single word choice—sensitive. Not a word people used often to describe her. Even with Elizabeth, her most frequent contact in the dailiness of mothering, sensitivity wasn’t something Kate wore on her sleeve. But Elizabeth had seen it. Each time Kate thought of it, she felt the loss of something she hadn’t known she’d had, an unscratched lottery ticket found years too late, a winner.

When Kate first heard about Elizabeth’s trip out west, it was last July. The Spensers stopped for an overnight in Connecticut on their way to the previous summer’s vacation, and the two women had gone walking on the beach, as they did when Kate came back to visit. Elizabeth mentioned her birthday gift from Dave, a long weekend away for a painting workshop. There was an opportunity with a Mexican painter famous for abstract landscapes, she’d said, a workshop guru who almost never left Oaxaca. She spoke in a gush with agitated movements, working a chain of dried seaweed between her fingers like rosary beads.

It had been strange, such fidgeting from a person usually calm as tranquilizers. Elizabeth called the trip a fortieth birthday present two years early, one she’d requested herself from Dave. She’d found a cheap flight from JFK to Los Angeles on August 9; Joshua Tree was about 120 miles east, and she was even looking forward to the drive alone. A getaway to recharge her batteries, she’d said, as the seaweed strand snapped in her hands. At the time Kate had been surprised. Elizabeth hardly ever traveled, rarely expressed an interest in it. Kate knew Elizabeth used to paint before she and Dave were married and still dabbled here and there, but nothing Kate would have thought worth taking a trip across the country without a baby so young.

That was the last time she’d seen Elizabeth. Her plane never made it past Queens. Officials called it a freak accident, a confluence of bad things— bad wind, bad rudder, a bad call by the pilot. Any deeper consideration of the flight, or the arbitrariness of Elizabeth’s having been on it, was quickly overshadowed by all that came in September. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Do you think the difference between being a stay-at-home mom or a mother with a career outside the home still creates barriers between women? Do you think if women show too much passion for their work they can be perceived as less motherly? Have you experienced tensions, stereotypes or expectations based on working status?

2. When Elizabeth is in high school, she concludes, “Smile, and the world likes you more.” Do you think that is true?

3. Which of the two women’s storylines were you most interested in reading, and with which did you more closely identify?

4. Do you believe the most formative developments in your life — professionally and personally — have happened by choice, coincidence, or a combination of both?

5. Do you feel your life is well balanced right now, and why or why not? Do you think those closest to you would be surprised at the way you’d answer that question?

--from the author

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Our lives should never be left unfinished."by Nancy B. (see profile) 01/05/16

I'll admit it -- I love to journal. They are a release, a conversation with yourself. I journaled daily when my son was deployed for 15 months in Iraq and then another 12 months in Afghanist... (read more)

  "The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D."by Stephanie S. (see profile) 05/23/13

Our book club was not impressed with the confusing mix of themes of this book. We usually read books featuring strong characters, especially women, and many of us felt that these characters were not developed... (read more)

  "The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D"by Karen M. (see profile) 04/27/13

Good book for discussion.

  "Good Story Gone Bad"by Stephanie R. (see profile) 03/04/13

Unfortunately what started as a good story with potential fell flat and wasn't well told.

  "good discussion"by Lisa R. (see profile) 12/03/12

  "Quick, easy read...makes for an interesting discussion."by Laurie T. (see profile) 12/03/12

  "great emotional book"by chris h. (see profile) 09/06/12

What a great book! I thoroughly enjoyed the likeable, fallible characters and found myself completely engrossed as their personal struggles are gradually revealed through journals entries a... (read more)

  "Deeply moving, beautifully written"by Kim K. (see profile) 08/05/12

Light enough for a summer read but deep enough to stay with you long after you're done. Every mother should read this. It inspires me to look within and more importantly to reach out.

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