The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.: A Novel

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Overview


Summer vacation on the 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 had known. The complicated portrait of Elizabeth––her upbringing, her marriage, and journey to motherhood––makes Kate question not just their friendship, but her most fundamental beliefs about loyalty and deception at a time when she is uncertain in ...
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The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.: A Novel

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Overview


Summer vacation on the 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 had known. The complicated portrait of Elizabeth––her upbringing, her marriage, and journey to motherhood––makes Kate question not just their friendship, but her most fundamental beliefs about loyalty and deception at a time when she is uncertain 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 when she died. Set in the anxious post–September 11th summer of 2002, this story of two women––their friendship, their marriages, private ambitions, and fears––considers the aspects of ourselves we show and those we conceal, and the repercussions of our choices.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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)
Library Journal
En route to an island beach house with her family in the summer of 2002, Kate stops to pick up her friend Elizabeth's journals from her widower, Dave. Elizabeth died in a plane crash a month before 9/11, and her will indicated that Kate should get her journals if anything happened to her. Kate spends the summer reading and becomes obsessed, both fascinated and sobered by the aspects of her life that Elizabeth kept hidden from her friends and even Dave. Kate is also consumed by the mystery of why Elizabeth was on the flight that took her life. As she reads, Kate reflects on her own marriage and life choices, as well as the paranoia about her family's safety she developed after 9/11. Debut novelist Bernier's thoughtful observations on friendship, identity, motherhood, work, and marriage wrap around the mystery of Elizabeth, whose journal writing enlivens the book and gives readers much to think about. VERDICT This literary novel should be a favorite of book groups and have broad appeal beyond.—Nancy H. Fontaine, Dartmouth Coll., Hanover, NH
Library Journal - Audio
In this compelling debut novel set in New York just after 9/11, Kate, an accomplished pastry chef and mother of two, inherits a trunk of journals belonging to her late friend Elizabeth. Kate spends the summer reading the journals and is shocked by all that Elizabeth managed to hide from her friends and family. Though she's already unsettled by the terror attacks, reading Elizabeth's shattering secrets causes Kate to reflect as well on her own identity and to question her career, marriage, and parenting choices. Angela Brazil's pleasant voice and measured delivery add much to this nuanced novel. VERDICT Recommend to fans of Elizabeth Berg, Anne Tyler, or Jodi Picoult. ["A literary women's novel that should be a favorite of book groups and have broad appeal beyond," read the review of the Crown hc, LJ 6/1/12.—Ed.]—Beth Farrell, Cleveland State Univ. Law Lib.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781620640869
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/27/2012
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author


Nichole Bernier is a writer for magazines including Elle, Self, Health,Men’s Journal, and Boston Magazine, and a 14–year contributing editor with Conde Nast Traveler, where she was previously on staff as the golf and ski editor and columnist. She is a founder of the literary website BeyondTheMargins.com, and lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children.
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Interviews & Essays

Conversation between Dani Shapiro and Nichole Bernier

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?

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 11th 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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 46 )
Rating Distribution

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(20)

4 Star

(13)

3 Star

(7)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 46 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 5, 2012

    Nichole Bernier reminds one (in finely-wrought, clear, solid, t

    Nichole Bernier reminds one (in finely-wrought, clear, solid, turn-the-page prose) that in motherhood, in friendship, in marriage, there are no easy answers. None of us have one side--we are instead faceted prisms, showing a side here, a side there--and when we are lucky, we find people who we can show almost every version of ourselves. Bernier catches the rarity of those moments--and explores a grief rarely looked at; the grief of losing a friend. Wonderful book that I highly recommend.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 5, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Compelling Read

    What if everything you knew about your best friend was a lie? This is the situation that Kate Spenser finds herself when her best friend, Elizabeth Martin, dies in a tragic plane crash leaving behind a husband and 3 small children. Agonizing over the loss of her friend, Kate is surprised when she receives a letter from Elizabeth's lawyer. Elizabeth has left Kate all of her journals with a simple statement of "Start at the beginning."

    The story follows two story lines, Elizabeth's journal entries and Kate's impressions and reactions to them. There was so much about Elizabeth that Kate never knew and she begins to re-examine her own life and marriage. The author does a phenomenal job of inviting the reader into both Kate's thoughts and Elizabeth's writing. I was totally absorbed in the story and as I read further, was more and more surprised at how rich and deep the story had become. It makes you think about your own life and how people would remember you if you died unexpectantly.

    "The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D" is a stunning debut novel for Nichole Bernier.The characters of Kate and Elizabeth are both complicated and well-fleshed out as they struggle with their own identities of career woman vs. stay-at-home mom. Fans of women's fiction will thoroughly enjoy this story. Highly Recommended.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 8, 2012

    Nichole Bernier is a gifted writer. In this wonderfully plotted

    Nichole Bernier is a gifted writer. In this wonderfully plotted book, she explores disease, loss, marriage, fidelity, terrorism, motherhood and friendship without missing a beat. She is a gifted story teller, and with grace and deftness she writes of what one friend learns about herself and her own world after the loss of a friend she thought she knew. I am a writer, and I will recommend this book to any writer who wants to learn how to create page-turning plots.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 5, 2012

    I couldn't put this book down, carrying it with me in the car to

    I couldn't put this book down, carrying it with me in the car to read in school pick up lines, to doctor's offices, anywhere I could read a few more lines. In the unfolding mystery of the journals, the true story of a life is told, one that even her best friend didn't truly appreciate, one that offers insights we all can benefit from. Highly recommended!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2012

    We all have friends and we all wonder about their private lives.

    We all have friends and we all wonder about their private lives. What are they thinking about? What are they hiding? This is a book that lets you live out the fantasy of knowing what REALLY going on in someone else's heart. And it's smart and a very absorbing read. I highly recommend.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 9, 2012

    Couldn't Put It Down!

    In Nichole Bernier's debut novel, "The Unfinshed Work of Eluzabet D," I see mirror images of my own life, my thoughts on motherhood and friendship, and my uncertainty of both the past and the future. Bernier has an almost lyrical way of stringing words together to form sentences that make the reader experience the story with all senses.

    I am carried this book with me for days, reading at every opportunity. I highly reccomend this one as an unputdownable!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 8, 2012

    The Unfinished Work is "I don't want to go to bed until I r

    The Unfinished Work is "I don't want to go to bed until I read a little more" material. Bernier plucks emotional chords ranging from the yearning for the dreams we left undone to the fear of living in a post 9 11 world. Her work reminds me of Anita Shreve and the writing is as good as the story. I highly recommend this book!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 8, 2012

    Great book group book

    My husband sometimes slips and calls my book group my playgroup. It makes me furious! Playgroups are for babies. Book groups are for smart readers who like to share thoughts on books. Totally different!

    Yet, in a way, he isn't all wrong. Let's face it playgroups are really more for the mothers than the babies. A playgroup is where the characters of Nichole Bernier's debut novel meet. When Kate meets Elizabeth, she thinks Elizabeth is one of those "perfect" mothers who is in love with baby, husband, and life. Yet, when Elizabeth dies suddenly and mysteriously wills her journals to Kate, Kate gets a very different picture of the woman she thought she knew.

    I think this is a book for this generation. Bernier has crafted a beautifully written and often heart wrenching novel that explores the complex topic of identity. What defines who we are? Career? Family? Choices? Fate? This book is sure to incite a lively discussion at your next book group meeting.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 2, 2012

    Nichole Bernier hits it out of the park with this beautifully wr

    Nichole Bernier hits it out of the park with this beautifully written novel about friends, wives, mother's daughters, secrets and loss. Weaving a captivating story that can't help but touch the hearts of each and every woman who reads it, she examines what makes us tick, breaks our hearts and keeps us living! Absolutely riveting in it's style and stunning in exposing the vulnerability in us all.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 22, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Did anyone see To Gillian on her 37th Birthday? That movie where

    Did anyone see To Gillian on her 37th Birthday? That movie where Peter Gallagher still mourns his dead wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who has looked 37 for about three decades now--I'd mourn her too) two years after her death? No, me neither. But I always imagined it was something like this book. Kind of sentimental, kind of sad, but mostly about how we hold on to our impression of a person even when the real person is dead and gone.

    Elizabeth has died a year earlier (at the age of 37, no less) and her family, and especially her best friend Kate, continue to idealize her as the perfect woman. It doesn't help that she died a month before September 11, 2001, in an unrelated plane crash, so the grief over her death becomes mixed in and intensified with the grief of the nation. When Kate learns that the task has fallen to her to read and sort through Elizabeth's journals--twenty-five years worth of them--she is faced with a very different image of her friend. It turns out Elizabeth had so many secrets that Kate starts to wonder if she ever really knew her at all.

    Told in both diary excerpts and third person narrative,The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is the sort of novel that women will pass around and discuss (I'm not saying men won't like it--I really don't know--but the book is truly about being a woman, being a wife and a mother, and the relationships between women and their female friends). At the very least, it's the sort of book that made me want to call my female friends and make sure they're okay. Really okay.

    Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 10, 2012

    I loved so many things about this book: 1) the central point: yo

    I loved so many things about this book: 1) the central point: you think you know someone, but you don't 2.) friendships, marriages and parenting experiences are complex and woven through with ambivalence, uncertainties and difficult choices, large and small 3) the small moments and turns of life are beautifully drawn throughout this story. Looking forward to Nichole Bernier's next book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 10, 2012

    Of memory and insight

    From the first paragraph's description of the George Washington Bridge, I found myself completely absorbed, intrigued, and enriched by this beautiful story of friendship, loss, and the journey to understand both. Ms. Bernier is skilled at capturing emotional resonance, the significance of small moments, and the necessity of vulnerability in friendship, marriage, and life. I loved this novel and am grateful that I now know of this wonderful new author. I look forward to Ms. Bernier's next work.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 5, 2013

    I thought this book was ok, but not great. The writing was fant

    I thought this book was ok, but not great. The writing was fantastic, however, the characters were a bit of a bore. I didn't like either of the husband's and both the female characters seemed like moms that belong to a playgroup I would want nothing to do with. I kept waiting for something good to happen, it was just depressing from beginning to end. I felt let down when I finished the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2013

    Kinda boring

    Not wild about this book. Plot too predictable. Took many words to get to the morale of the story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2013

    Engrossing read

    A very engrossing read about the nature of people, how we choose to present ourselves to others versus what or who we truly are inside, and whether it is possible to truly know anyone else. Well-written, it rang very true to me. Highly recommended.

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  • Posted February 19, 2013

    Great read

    I couldn't put the book down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2012

    Good, absorbing read.

    A wife and mother dies suddenly, leaving behind a trunk of journals which she stipulates be given to her best friend. Turns out the deceased woman had a lot of secrets that suggest one thing, but actually mean another. Makes you realize that we almost never know people the way we think we do. Enjoyble, thought-provoking, if not riveting.

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  • Posted October 5, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Highly recommend

    Reminds us we never really know "everything" about our friends but we can always be there for them no matter what the circumstance.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2012

    Highly recommend

    I was very moved by this book. As the main character discovers more about her deceased friend, I found myself looking into my own friendships a little deeper.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2012

    Good Read

    I really enjoyed this book a lot. It was not predictable and had me wanting to continue reading. I would highly recommend this book.

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