Comfort Reading

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D – Nichole Bernier – 8/10

“She had a fleeting thought of the things that had not happened – a self-detonating martyr, Chris’s burned wallet returned to her by the embassy – and wondered if things would ever be simple again, a trip just a trip a sound on the porch.”

The key to this novel is whether you can ever really know what someone else thinks of you – or whether you can ever really know them at all. Elizabeth has died in a plane crash and left her life’s journals to her best friend Kate rather than to devastated husband and now single dad-of-three Dave. Dave’s peeked and found a man’s name, not his own, and is pretty grumpy about it. Kate takes the trunk of journals on holiday with her family for the summer and becomes absorbed in the history of her friend, discovering that things were not at all as they appeared.

Elizabeth is a real piece of work (in a crazy but good way) – but I suppose she has to be or this wouldn’t be much of a book. Kate strikes me as much more ploddy and calm, but then Elizabeth writes about how her friend took down some precious comments in the playground, or Kate  recounts moments in fast-paced kitchens – so I suppose self-image is under consideration here too. I love the idea of learning about a person through their journals – it’s so honest and unflinching and unfiltered. Kate discovers lots of things she had no idea about, realising that maybe Elizabeth wasn’t just the perfect housewife she appeared to be, but had struggled with grief and solitude and a career behind the scenes.

Bernier writes at length and often and with real emotion about the struggle of a mother – whether to go back to work or not, how to balance her own needs with those of her children and husband. Fear is also a recurring theme – the novel is set in “the nervous summer after 9/11” and Kate is constantly scared of terrorism. Or disease. Or fire. Or anything really, she’s just afraid. These themes are some of the best parts of this book; Bernier approaches them from a number of angles and puts her characters in difficult situations to test out their responses.

As with other books I’ve read recently about women, the men are a little flat and predictable. Don’t go back to work. We don’t need the money. The kids need you. Or do go back. Whatever. I don’t care if you’re worried that I’m travelling in Bali and Jakarta and Cambodia. Don’t mess up my memories of my dead wife. Have another kid. Don’t tell me when you might have cancer. I just felt that Bernier made them much less intricate than Kate and Elizabeth so that they could cause actions by the women, but not make any real contribution to the plot themselves.

Lastly, the setting – how are there this many idyllic islands in the US that I didn’t know about? Other novels with islands: Love Anthony, Blackberry Winter, Snow Falling on Cedars. Ideally, the protagonists should have a part of the island that is little known, not overrun with tourists. There must be seclusion but also neighbourliness. Is this a thing over the pond? I’m a little flummoxed because it seems a bit twee. Anyway, it’s all pretty and serene and relaxing.

I don’t seem to have justified an 8/10 rating here. Put in this way – I cracked it open about 4.30 on Friday. At 6.10 I looked up, a bit choked up.

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