Beach books, often romantic or lightly dramatic breezy novels, don’t necessarily take place at the beach. Nichole Bernier’s debut novel, THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D., is, however, set at the beach. While it has elements of the romantic/dramatic beach book, it goes one step further, giving readers a rich, compelling story.
"The journals contain plenty of secrets --- sad, compelling, even juicy --- to ensure that readers keep turning the pages. Bernier’s style is lighter than her subject matter, making reading effortless.... THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D. is a smart and heartfelt book for the beach and beyond."
Kate Spenser’s friend, Elizabeth Martin, recently died in a plane crash, leaving behind a husband and three young children. To everyone’s surprise, Elizabeth had altered her will, leaving Kate a trunk full of journals. Kate takes the trunk with her to Rock Island, where her family is vacationing on the beach for seven weeks. The contents become an obsession as she spends her free time reading Elizabeth’s journals going back to her childhood. Right away Kate learns the terrible secret Elizabeth kept about her sister, which is just the first revelation.
It soon becomes clear that Kate knew very little about Elizabeth, and what she did know was based mostly on assumption and appearance. Elizabeth’s passion, before she began her family, was art. But her pursuits were thwarted, and instead she focused on design and then building a life with her husband Dave. What Kate saw was an organized and kind mother and wife. As her journals reveal, though, Elizabeth was an emotional, artistic, and often very sad and lonely woman.
Kate herself is working through conflicting emotions and weighing her own options. Though happily married, she misses her career as a pastry chef and wishes her husband didn’t travel so much for work. Her concerns have become focused lately on her belief that the world is an unsafe place: In the post 9/11 landscape and after Elizabeth’s death, Kate sees danger all around her.
While so much of Elizabeth is revealed, in her own words and in Kate’s retelling, Kate herself remains somewhat of a mystery. Elizabeth is frustratingly and perhaps realistically inconsistent, which seems to be intentional. However, Bernier’s characterization of Kate is inconsistent at times that cannot really be explained with the story itself. Kate’s preoccupation with the journals is easy to understand, but her wanting to keep them from Elizabeth’s widower and spending her summer fixated on them is harder to relate to. It isn’t until the reader keeps in mind that Kate is questioning life and safety in a world where terrorists may lurk around every corner and anthrax may be found in every envelope that her behavior begins to make sense. For Kate, Elizabeth’s journals are a way to process her own fears and contemplate her own identity as a wife, mother and creative person.
The journals contain plenty of secrets --- sad, compelling, even juicy --- to ensure that readers keep turning the pages. Bernier’s style is lighter than her subject matter, making reading effortless. This is not quite a literary novel, but a good one nonetheless, that bravely tackles topics such as motherhood, marriage, family, work, the fear of death and the joys of life. THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D. is a smart and heartfelt book for the beach and beyond.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on June 15, 2012
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.