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Nichole Bernier – The Unfinished Work Of Elizabeth D.

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Healing the self in an age of unrest.

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 305
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-88780-1
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 1st July 2012
Rating: 3.5/5

Elizabeth died in a plane crash shortly before 9/11, and Kate has found it easier to grieve for longer without people criticising because of the devastation that came afterwards. But did Kate really know Elizabeth? When she’s given Elizabeth’s diaries she finds that their friendship may have only touched the surface of who Elizabeth really was. And in learning about Elizabeth, Kate must reassess the person she has herself become.

It should be noted straight away that while official summaries of the book suggest that Elizabeth died on 9/11, she did not, and thus the story does not refer to the event much except to explain Kate’s state of mind.

The Unfinished Work Of Elizabeth D. revolves around a friend reading the diaries of a recently deceased woman against the backdrop of the woman’s grieving husband, the friend’s strained marriage, and the friend’s issues, which seem to have formed because of the death.

How many things in life are like this, near misses? … Every move you make and a million ones you don’t all have ramifications that mean life or death or love or bankruptcy or whatever. It could paralyse you if you let it. But you have to live your life. What’s the alternative?

Kate is a worrier, and since Elizabeth’s death she has worried about attacks happening in her city and in the places her husband goes to on his business trips, and also about diseases that could claim the lives of her children. As the book continues the reader finds that her worrying is at risk of becoming an OCD and that if she doesn’t get her head around the fact that one has to live with the future unknown, her marriage could reach breaking point and her life become even more of a mess than it is now. Kate is also struggling with balancing her need for a career with bringing up her children.

If Elizabeth’s death was somewhat of a catalyst for the extreme changes in Kate, then it also plays a part in getting Kate back to normality. The diaries of a woman who Kate finds she didn’t really know open her up to the situations she’s put herself in and how she’s let other things in life take over from doing what she wants to do. Elizabeth’s role is to teach Kate how to be, how to do things the right way. Although it may not seem it, especially considering the title, Kate is the main character, not Elizabeth.

Another theme is a lack of communication – between Chris and Kate, between Dave and Elizabeth, between Kate and Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s issues may have stemmed from a particular event, but the way she never let anyone see the real her was the reason for her continued issues and indeed for misunderstandings after her death. That she didn’t discuss important issues with Dave, and this is apparent very early on, caused the equilibrium she was trying to keep to simply just result in more pain. The communication issues between Chris and Kate have obviously been there a long time, but the arrival of the diaries and Kate’s reading of them to the expense of couple time with Chris, brings matters to a head. It is almost as if Kate has brought a third person into the marriage and in discussing the content of the diaries with Chris, Kate is effectively describing a lot of the problems in her own marriage.

But something feels missing in this book. It feels unfinished due to Kate’s feelings about Chris not being confronted – they may have been thoughts but to the reader they are presented as real possibilities and thus needed to be dealt with. And whilst we come full circle with Elizabeth’s diaries there are still a few things that could have been included. The story is good, but not as compelling as others that dwell on the same psychological themes. There are subplots that are left open, such as Max’s bakery and the looming fear that he will have to close it, as well as a wondering of why such subplots were included in the first place.

The ending is very much opened-ended. Will they stay where they are, will there be a separation, how will Kate respond to her discoveries – all the questions that the reader asked the book at the start remain questions at the end. And while it is okay that not every thread is tied, there needed to be at least some sort of resolution so that the reader had more of an idea how things might turn out.

The Unfinished Work Of Elizabeth D. is a nice, somewhat laid-back look at how awful events can effect us in less typical ways, but whether planned or not, the second word of its title is an apt description of the book. The messages and lessons are solid, but the execution could have been better.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishing Group, Random House.

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Andrew Blackman

August 6, 2012, 8:01 pm

Hi Charlie,
Welcome back! This book sounds interesting, but you do a good job of explaining its drawbacks. I’ve read a few books recently that left a lot open-ended like this, and while it can work, it can also leave you feeling dissatisfied. I don’t need everything to be neatly tied up for me at the end, but I do need some sense of resolution. Interesting that the title hints at the flaw!


August 7, 2012, 5:44 pm

Thanks, Andrew :) Yes, the book is good but a lot of the potential was lost. A resolution of some kind is indeed important.



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