The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is an insightful novel about friendship and marriage that is a beautifully written and compelling read. It is also a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination the impact of fatalism and determinism on friendships and marriages in the post 9/11 world.
When The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D opens, post 9/11, Elizabeth has died in a plane crash leaving behind a husband, Dave, and three young children. She and Dave had an apparently happy marriage — friends enjoyed socialising at their house where children had space to play and adults could relax and talk.
From her early teens, Elizabeth had kept a journal and recorded her thoughts, described day to day experiences and meditated on her relationships. In her will, she left instructions that her friend Kate should read these journals. We don’t know why she has selected Kate over Dave for this task or what she hoped that Kate would take away from the exercise.
Elizabeth’s journals are both fascinating and a burden for Kate who realises how little she really knew her friend. Certainly, Elizabeth’s life experiences had left her with a bleak view of friendship and marriage: “In the end I go back to that same feeling I’ve always had about confidences. The other person rarely has anything useful to offer and usually you leave feeling no better, sometimes worse.”
As Kate reads the journals and reflects on Elizabeth’s often troubled writing, she too questions how much anyone really can know another person.
By leaving the journals to Kate, Elizabeth creates a tension between Dave and Kate that comes to the fore as Kate becomes increasingly absorbed in the journals. From the journals, Kate learns more than she might have wished to know about the problems in Elizabeth’s marriage. This new knowledge comes as a burden but it also brings her closer to Elizabeth and makes her miss her even more.
Throughout the journals, we see that Elizabeth was always aware of the complex interrelationship between fatalism and choice. As she puts it, “It was the opposite of fatalism, this stark recognition of the effects of choices that had not seemed much like choices at the time.”
And, the more she reads, the more Kate herself begins to muse on the fatalistic choices and consequences that determine lives.
This is a skillful and a well told tale that is driven forward by a good mystery but at its heart The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D is a serious novel that tackles universal themes and will leave you mulling on the issues it raises long after you close the covers.
An advance copy of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D was provided free of charge by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. : a novel by Nichole Bernier is published by Crown Publishing, New York, 2012.
Published: 05 June 2012