Thursday, February 7, 2013

"The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D," by Nichole Bernier

Nichole Bernier’s “The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D” (Crown, 2012) is her first novel. I must admit that when I read that she is “a writer for magazines, including Elle, Self, Health, Men’s Journal, and Boston magazine,” I wondered how “literary” her novel would be. I fully acknowledge that this is an unfair reaction, as many good and great writers have written for magazines, and as I myself very much appreciate the wonderful writing to be found in many magazines. But then the premise – a woman (Kate) reading the journals of her friend (Elizabeth) after her sudden death (as authorized in Elizabeth’s will) – and the setting on an island famed for its summer season, where Kate is on vacation, led me to feel the novel might be typical “chick lit” and/or “beach reading” (both of which I have been known to enjoy at times, despite my dislike of the terms, especially the first one). Again, this was unfair, and the quality of the novel and the writing turned out to be much better than those expectations predicted. The novel is a sort of meditation on how we don’t really know some of our closest friends, and how a placid exterior may conceal many depths and much unrevealed experience. As Kate works her way through the journals, she struggles with a sense of disorientation and even hurt feelings at Elizabeth’s concealing so much of her self and her life. Kate also has to deal with Elizabeth’s widower Dave’s concern about what the journals might reveal, and his resentment (although he tries to stay upbeat and polite) about Elizabeth’s leaving the journals to Kate rather than to him. Overall, this book engages the reader’s attention and provokes thought about friendship, marriage, the unknown qualities in our closest friends and family members, and our legacies. I was particularly interested in the idea of journals left behind, and what they say about us, and was reminded of a (far less interesting!) journal story of my own. A few years ago, I read through and then destroyed my journals from my teenaged and college years, not because there were any surprising or significant revelations written there, but because I was embarrassed about the self-involvement and angst (typical of the age) they displayed, and didn’t see any good reason for anyone else to read them. At the time, they served a good purpose: they allowed me to express my feelings, and thus were therapeutic, but they definitely did not have literary value that outlasted those purposes. I have not kept journals since that time. So now all my writing energy goes into my academic writing (which includes some personal narrative) and into this blog!

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