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Elizabeth Martin was the consummate stay-at-home mother – easygoing with children, organized, always willing to lend a hand, and happy – or so it seemed to Elizabeth’s best friend Kate and the other mothers in their suburban Connecticut playgroup. But when a freak accident took Elizabeth’s life, she left behind a trunk full of diaries and the instruction that they be given to Kate, who would “know what should be done with them.” Kate is surprised by the bequest and not at all sure what to do, but starts at the beginning with Elizabeth’s childhood journals. As she reads, Kate not only discovers a woman far different from the Elizabeth she thought she knew, she uncovers some long-buried desires of her own.
In The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., author Nichole Bernier has done a remarkable job capturing the nuances of friendship, marriage, and motherhood; the ambivalence that many women feel about working outside the home or staying home with young children; and the climate of anxiety following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. I, too, was a mother of a young child at that time, also then living in a metropolitan New York suburb. This novel resonated for me, as I suspect it will for many other women: from the well-observed domestic details to the hyper-awareness of life’s fragility that seemed ever-present in those days, there is so much here that feels familiar.
Bernier has also created an affecting portrait of a friendship, imperfect though it was. Neither Kate nor Elizabeth was flawless, and I loved that the author portrayed both women in all their complexity and inner conflict. Elizabeth’s story was far more interesting and poignant for being seen through Kate’s eyes, and Kate’s character was more intriguing for changing in reaction to Elizabeth’s diaries.
As you would expect from any story about a life that ends too soon, the novel is rather moving, but in the end, less for the sadness of Elizabeth’s passing than for the grief over what might have been. Above all, the Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. recognizes beautifully that the tragedy of women who die young too is that they not only leave behind grieving family and friends, but too often essential pieces of their unfinished selves as well.