Nichole Bernier’s bittersweet first novel, “The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.,” picks up nearly a year after Elizabeth’s death. Killed in an airplane accident, she left behind a confused husband, three young children and an unusual addendum to her will. In a last-minute handwritten note, she bequeathed an antique trunk full of journals to her friend Kate Spenser. She included only one direction: “Start at the beginning.”
The two women bonded in a play group five years earlier when Kate moved to Stamford, Conn., with her husband and new baby. Elizabeth lacked the fast-paced irony and wit of Kate’s friends from New York, where she was on her way to becoming a celebrity chef. But soon Elizabeth was the person Kate saw more than anyone else, “the comfortable T-shirt you reached for mornings when there was no need to impress anyone.” Elizabeth “was always there, checking in with a phone call at regular intervals, reliable as the tide,” even after Kate moved to D.C. “And then, one day, she wasn’t.”
Elizabeth’s death and, a month later, the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks leave Kate unhinged and fearful. In desperate need of a restful vacation and stuck in the inevitable Northeast Corridor traffic, she regrets agreeing to stop in Connecticut for the journals on the way to Great Rock Island. She can’t imagine her uncomplicated friend writing anything other than shopping lists.
But as she begins reading the journals, Kate comes to feel the loss of “something she hadn’t known she’d had, an unscratched lottery ticket found years too late.” Begun as a form of therapy when Elizabeth was 12, the journals reveal a childhood tragedy that left her ambivalent toward marriage and family. The woman Kate knew as the sunny, always smiling “Mommy Pollyanna” was once called Sourpuss and Grumplestiltskin. She was also a lot smarter and more talented than she let on. Kate’s changing perspective on Elizabeth causes her to question her own life decisions. She begins to fear that her marriage is unraveling under the weight of secrets she and her husband have been keeping from each other.
Why did Elizabeth embark on her last trip? Why do we keep secrets from those we love most? Is it possible for mothers and fathers to have it all — work and family? Bernier’s excellent storytelling skills will keep you pondering long after the final page.
Robertson is a senior producer at “The Diane Rehm Show.”
THE UNFINISHED WORK
OF ELIZABETH D.
By Nichole Bernier
Crown. 309 pp. $24