Tuesday, June 19, 2012

THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D. by Nichole Bernier (2012) Crown Publishing, 305 pages

For discerning readers who yearn for character-driven stories rife with verisimilitude, look no further than Nichole Bernier's luminous and tender debut novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D.  As New York Times bestselling author J. Courtney Sullivan remarks, it is "a compelling mystery and a wise meditation...in an age of great anxiety."

Protagonist Kate Spenser has been both gifted and burdened with her friend Elizabeth's journals after Elizabeth's sudden death in an August plane crash, a "confluence of bad things--bad wind, bad rudder, a bad call by the pilot...quickly overshadowed by all that came in September." It is the spectre of that particular September 2001 that hides like a watermark beneath Kate's anxieties as she thumbs through the decades of Elizabeth's life confided between the pages of her trunkful of well-worn diaries.

Since Elizabeth leaves behind her widowed husband and three small children, including a toddler who surely won't remember her, it is not surprising that Kate, a happily married wife to Chris and mother to James and Piper, projects her imagined loss on them. And, it is in these imaginings that you see Bernier's emotional strength as a novelist who writes about real characters: "Loss would hang on James and Piper like poorly fitting clothes as they moved through town, people touching their hair and saying hello more attentively than they ever had, some even offering small gifts, which would cause the children to confuse death with a holiday. The kids would walk to school with their father, his vacant eyes an open door to a corridor of endless tomorrows." She's in John Irving terrain here, holding up the mirror to our greatest human fears.

Bernier builds tension masterfully throughout the novel. An obvious source is between Kate and Elizabeth's husband Dave, both trying to come to terms with why Elizabeth would bequeath the journals to a friend she's known for only a time instead of to her family as part of her legacy. There are secrets, of course. Indeed, ones that will catch your breath as you read them over Kate's shoulder. Consider the truth in this heartbreaking observation about the relationships between women: "A sister...best understood the crucible in which you were formed. One of the few capable of completing you, and if lost, of cleaving you cleanly in half."

Wisdom and emotional truth teem from these pages. And, you will surely feel as I did that you have spent the restorative seven weeks on Great Rock Island in the company of Kate and Chris and their children, unravelling thread by thread the great mystery of what it is to be human through love and loss and the redemptive power of both.

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