The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

by Nichole Bernier


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307887825
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 03/12/2013
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 838,121
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

NICHOLE BERNIER has written for publications including Psychology Today, Salon, Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. A longtime contributing editor with Conde Nast Traveler, she lives outside Boston with her husband and five children.

Reading Group Guide

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.

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. The epigraph is an excerpt of an essay by Wallace Stegner about his mother, “Letter Much Too Late,” written sixty years after she’d died, when Stegner was 80.

Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to...You are at once a lasting presence and an unhealed wound.

How does this relate to The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., and do you think it applies to more than one character?

6. 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?

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

8. 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?

13. What kinds of things do you see--or imagine--people commonly conceal when crafting their public face?

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

15. 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?


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.

Customer Reviews

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The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.: A Novel 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 57 reviews.
constantreaderRM More than 1 year ago
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.
debralmartin More than 1 year ago
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.
mollydcampbell More than 1 year ago
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.
j-fay More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
M-gal More than 1 year ago
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!
jotsandtittles More than 1 year ago
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.
CozyLittleBookJournal More than 1 year ago
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.
FloLC More than 1 year ago
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!
bluestockingMA More than 1 year ago
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.
InsomniacKC More than 1 year ago
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!
EdM99 More than 1 year ago
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.
astults on LibraryThing 2 days ago
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is a thought-provoking novel about relationships. How well can you know your best friend? Or your husband? Which characteristics or habits are you willing to overlook or fool yourself into believing don¿t exist? Those are some of the questions most people don¿t explore. Through the journals, Kate discovers Elizabeth¿s philosophy that sharing confidences only makes the other person feel worse. It helps explain why Elizabeth never told Kate some of her most private heartaches or why she was really on the plane that crashed. The journals also help Kate figure out she needs to move beyond the fear of this new post-9/11 and live her life. No one can plan for every contingency. The back and forth between Elizabeth¿s journals and Kate¿s life have the give and take of a conversation. This format was one of my favorite aspects of the novel. It¿s not something that was easily pulled off. Bernier had to put a lot of time into revisions to make it flow properly.
PMelchior on LibraryThing 2 days ago
Reading Nichole Bernier's "The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D." is bound to leave you wondering just how well you know your friends, your husband, or maybe even yourself. Because throughout our journey with protagonist Kate we find our own assumptions about relationships challenged.Kate is a career pastry chef who stepped back from the kitchen for motherhood. Though it has been some months since the death of her close friend, she is just beginning to fulfill a bequest from Elizabeth: to read the journals she left behind.Turns out, Elizabeth left behind some secrets, too, and as Kate uncovers those secrets and unravels the real story of Elizabeth, she begins to question the most basic foundations of friendship, marriage and, of course, herself.Bernier reveals a deep understanding of relationships and choices made for both, but she frustrated me by muddying the waters with other questions. Are our lives a series of accidents or do we choose our own destinies? With questions like that, we're left to wonder whether the ultimate cosmic joke was on Elizabeth, who worked so hard to control her own destiny.On the other hand, Bernier does a wonderful job addressing the overarching questions raised in the novel and leaves us to ponder the choices we make based on assumptions we never thought to challenge.
bookwormteri on LibraryThing 2 days ago
I don't think that I understood the message. Was it: don't judge other people based on their appearance, don't trust anyone, life is short so appreciate it, you never really know someone...? My mom gave me this book, so I read it because I love my mother and didn't want to hurt her feelings, but I really think that maybe I am the wrong audience for this book. I am a mother, I was a wife, but I am also one cynical, jaded b**ch...So, just half a meh from me....
hollysing on LibraryThing 2 days ago
Elizabeth is killed in a plane crash, leaving behind a husband and two children. In her will, she bequeaths to her best friend, Kate, a trunk of her journals. Elizabeth asks that Kate start reading at the beginning (1976). Kate reads, at first fearful that her friend¿s journals will reveal Elizabeth¿s thoughts and impressions of her, positive or negative. To Mary¿s surprise, the journals reveal the loss, turmoil, and emotional distress Elizabeth endured from age twelve until her death. The friend she knew went missing in more ways than one. Kate must come to grips not just with Elizabeth¿s death, but also with the person revealed in Elizabeth¿s journal entries.Nichole Bernier wrote the novel in the wake of her own friend¿s death in the September 11 terrorist attacks. She chose to record her character¿s thoughts in journals (where you converse with yourself). This seems a lost art in today¿s conversations with the world though blogs. Ms. Bernier elegantly crafts a phrase. Of Elizabeth¿s distraught husband she writes, ¿his vacant eyes (were) an open door to a corridor of endless tomorrows.¿ She introduces gravitas by cleverly emitting clues in the journals. What is revealed is Elizabeth¿s honest struggle to find her true identity amidst all of the roles others expect her to play.Book Clubs will be drawn to the book for debates over: ¿How do we distinguish between protecting and deceiving our loved ones?¿Do we accept our friends as whole people or just love the part that we agree with?¿How do we juggle career, children, and marriage while confronting our inner demons and needs?I recommend The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D highly to women looking for literary fiction, not ¿chick lit.¿ It is pensive, sensitive, and emotionally stimulating.The Amazon Vine program graciously provided the advance review copy.Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
melaniehope on LibraryThing 2 days ago
This is a amazing novel of two women, Kate and Elizabeth. We are introduced to the character of Elizabeth only after her death in a tragic accident. Kate, who was a good friend of Elizabeth, inherits an old truck of journals that have all been written by Elizabeth before her death. These journals contain her deepest secrets, hopes, wishes and regrets.Tragically, Elizabeth has left behind a husband and three small children. Kate, who tries to be both confident and competent in her role of mother and wife, also feels the strain of keeping her family safe when she does not know where that is any longer.What makes this book such a compelling read is that the characters all seem to be people we can relate to in our own lives. Plus, we are also getting a chance to read Elizabeth's journals of her private thoughts right along with Kate.This is essentially a book of the difference between the way people are viewed, and the way they really would have wanted to be seen, and remembered after their death.Kate discovers, she may not have really known her friends at all.The book is so well written and had me running to pick it up and read every chance I got.
debnance on LibraryThing 2 days ago
How well do we really know people, even people who we consider our friends?That¿s the question this book explores. When Kate¿s good friend, Elizabeth, dies unexpectedly in a plane crash, Kate is surprised to find that Elizabeth has left a trunk of old journals to Kate in her will.Charged by Elizabeth to read the journals, Kate begins the task during an extended beach vacation with her family. The Elizabeth Kate reads about in the journals is a very different person than the strong, loving wife and mother that Kate thought she knew, and Kate begins to wonder how well she really knew Elizabeth at all.A perfect summer read, a book that somehow satisfies the dual summer desires to both escape and reflect.
PamelaBarrett on LibraryThing 2 days ago
When Kate¿s friend Elizabeth died she left Kate all of her journals. This came as a disturbing surprise to Elizabeth¿s husband Dave, and it put Kate in the uncomfortable position of trying to decide what to do with them; read them, store them, show them to her family or destroy them for the sake of their memories of Elizabeth? Kate knew Elizabeth as the perfect happy mother of 3 children. They met at the neighborhood play group where the mom¿s brought their kids and supported each other through the trials of motherhood. While reading the journals, which start in Elizabeth¿s childhood, Kate discovers how little she knew about Elizabeth¿s life. She also finds a mystery that she feels compelled to solve.This contemporary novel is set right after 911 and Kate is internalizing all the fears that touched and changed our lives. A very compelling read, that made me want to start rereading it as soon as I finished. I think it¿s a good book for couples to read and discuss together. The author¿s insights on the complexity of communications in marriages and within the family are correctly portrayed. I gave 5 stars to this debut novel. I read it through the Amazon¿s vine program.
Beamis12 on LibraryThing 2 days ago
When Elizabeth is killed in a freak accident, she leaves her journals to Kate. Kate has not been her friend terribly long but they clicked during mommy baby play groups and became fast friends. This novel leads one to many questions. How well do we really know the people we are close to? Does everyone have a side of themselves that they keep secret? Do people reinvent themselves to fit in either their preconceived notions or of others. How often do we fail to admit the truth either to ourselves or others. Well written and much deeper than most woman's fiction, this book was extremely interesting and enlightening. Really made me think.ARC from NetGalley.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
nbaker1234 More than 1 year ago
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 Afghanistan. It was important for me to know that he knew that he was utmost in our thoughts and prayers. I journal thoughts, stories and poems. Because of my passion for the written word, I am always elated when I run across a book dealing with letters or journals from the past. Elizabeth D has been killed in a plane crash. Her husband and 3 children are devastated and her best friend, Kate, from the old neighborhood is in shock. Elizabeth and Kate spent much time shopping together, swapping stories, engaging in Mother's Clubs, babysitting for one another, etc. Though they no longer lived across the street from one another, the connection is still there -- especially for Kate. Elizabeth D loved to journal. She has been writing in journals since her adolescent years. She has a trunk filled with her life's stories. Her husband respects her privacy and the privacy of her journals. However, when she accidentally dies, he finds she has willed all of her journals to be given to her friend, Kate, who can then decide what to do with them. He is suddenly faced with a feeling of betrayal that he will never know what words are inscribed within them and anger that his wife did not entrust them to him. Kate is confused as to her friends request and afraid of what she might find inside. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves just how well we know other people. Do we truly know our friends, family, co-workers, even our spouse or are they merely showing us the sides of them they want us to see? And if we are true friends -- true listeners, then why the need to keep feelings and experiences hidden? Is it deceit? Mere omission? Fear of criticism or rejection? Or are some things just better off left unsaid? Journals can oftentimes be a conversation with yourself. An opportunity to divulge your feelings without the opinions of others. It can be a cleansing experience to relieve stress or fears without burdening others. Perhaps there are times when there is much more people would like to say in a conversation if others would just remain quiet and listen. Elizabeth D's life may be over, but her story lives on in her journals. This is a beautiful story of how we, far too often, find ourselves attached to the surface of a person without realizing that it is the inner makings and life experiences of that individual that brought beauty and character to their surface.
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