BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.’: How Much Do We Really Know About Our Best Friends?

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.': How Much Do We Really Know About Our Best Friends?

Before the age of Twitter and Facebook, many people — especially women — put pen to paper and kept journals. I’m sure quite a few people still do; there’s something sensuous about writing in a journal with a fountain pen, my preference. One of the most dedicated of journal keepers was Elizabeth Drogan Martin — the Elizabeth D. of Nichole Bernier’s debut novel “The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.” (Crown, 320 pages, $24.00).

For Kate Spenser the seven weeks her family — her husband Chris and their two children, James and Piper — plan to vacation on Great Rock Island in the summer of 2002 is bittersweet in the extreme. In normal times the family would spend a few weeks on the island off the Massachusetts coast, but since she lost her close friend Elizabeth Martin in a plane crash in August 2001, a month before 9/11, times are far from normal. They’ve decided to extend their stay since Chris will probably be globe-trotting in his job with a hotel chain. He’s the firm’s expert on finding hotel properties in exotic places, but after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, exotic places are often dangerous places, too.

 

On the way to the island from their home in Washington, DC, the Spensers stop at the Connecticut home where Dave Martin and his children live and pick up an antique trunk filled with journals that Elizabeth had been writing for decades. Elizabeth’s will specifically named Kate, a pastry chef turned stay-at-home mom, as the recipient of the trunk. This decision has engendered tension between Dave, a former professional golfer who now works for a golf products company, and their former neighbors, the Spensers.

 

Nichole Bernier

Nichole Bernier

 

On the island — it could be Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard — Kate begins reading the journals and discovers a woman she hardly knew. The cheerful wife and mother Kate thought she knew from play dates and social events disappears and Kate’s friend is revealed to be a far more troubled and complicated person than she had ever imagined. Elizabeth was ostensibly on her way to work with a world renowned artist in California when the plane crashed just minutes from its takeoff at LaGuardia Airport. Kate had known about Elizabeth’s art studies in Italy and her subsequent career as an artist and later a graphic designer, but something was amiss with this trip. Who is the mysterious Michael mentioned in the journals and was Elizabeth’s marriage with Chris really as rock solid as it appeared?

 

The more Kate reads the journals in the loft of their rental on the island, the more she ponders her own life. She misses her work in restaurants and is considering a full-time job in Washington once the vacation is over.

 

I was as troubled as Dave Spenser was about the decision of Elizabeth to turn over the journals to Kate. A marriage is supposed to be a union of two friends and lovers, so why is Dave excluded at this difficult time? Reading “The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.” you’ll find the answers to some — not all — of the questions that disturbed me — and Dave.

 

Friendship doesn’t always mean sharing secrets. We all have parts of our lives that we keep hidden.

 

About the author

Nichole Bernier has written for magazines including Elle, SelfHealth, and Men’s Journal. A 14-year contributing editor for Conde Nast Traveler, she was previously on staff as the magazine’s golf and ski editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She received her master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and is one of the founders of the literary blog Beyond the Margins. Nichole lives outside Boston with her husband and five children. Her website: www.nicholebernier.com.

 

Publisher’s website: www.crownpublishing.com

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