Written with exquisite grace, depth, and honesty, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nichole Bernier explores decisions driven by motherhood and marriage. I was transfixed as Kate read the journals she’d inherited from Elizabeth, peeling back the layers of her friend’s life, and in the process grappling with her own choices and terrors. Women have secret lives—sometimes hidden in the corners of our minds, sometimes in dreams unrealized. One mark of friendship is when and whether these nightmares and ambitions can be revealed. This riveting novel fiercely captures this fulcrum of the public and private lives of American mothers.
Set in the anxious summer after the September 11th attacks, this story reveals and considers the aspects of ourselves we show, those we conceal, and the repercussions of our choices.
Below, the first pages of this wonderful novel:
The George Washington Bridge had never been anything but strong and beautiful, its arches monumental, cable thin and high. Kate watched them spindling like ribs past the car window as her husband drove eastbound across the span. It was a testimony to optimism, a suspension bridge, each far-fetched plate, truss, and girder an act of faith against gravity and good sense.
The sun was strong, glinting off the bridge and hitting the river like shattered glass. Drivers traveling in both directions were shielding their eyes, staring as she was down the length of Manhattan. She didn’t know what any of them expected to see. Mushroom clouds? Sky writing in Arabic? She wished for some visible sign of drama where the towers had once stood. Then she looked toward Queens, even though it was impossible to see the site from this distance. Few people were even looking anymore, though she always would.
The car reached the end of the bridge and she exhaled. Chris glanced over and she faced the window with what she hoped looked like ordinary interest, damp-palmed hands loose in her lap.
He angled the rearview mirror to check the backseat. The children were still asleep.
“Has Dave gone back to work yet?” His voice was grave, in the way someone speaks about a bad diagnosis.
She put her foot up on the dash. “A few months ago. His company let him take as much time as he needed.”
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Chris nodded, satisfied. It was the right thing for the company to do, and he liked when the right thing was done with a minimum of drama. “What’s he doing with the kids? Did she have family close by? ”
“No. There’s no one.” A trickle of cool air from the vent brought gooseflesh to her leg. “He found a nanny through an agency.”
“It’s strange to think of Elizabeth’s kids with a nanny.”
That was the first thing she had thought too, like Julia Child farming out the cooking to a housekeeper. “People do it all the time, Chris. Not everyone stays home with their kids.”
He looked over, gauging her. “You know that’s not what I meant, Kate.”
She turned back to the window and wiped the corner of her eye as if she were ridding it of an irritation. A nanny in Elizabeth Mar- tin’s house. The obvious things weren’t what affected her most—the obituary, the service, even visiting the crash site, a charred hole in Queens that seemed inhospitable to anything ever being grown or built there again. The smaller details were the potent ones. Seeing the open can of infant formula on the Martins’ kitchen counter the first time she’d visited to help. Hearing that Jonah had lost his first tooth a few weeks ago, but Dave had forgotten to tell the tooth fairy. These were the things that gave certain days a dull ache she could not explain, or shake.
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A sign ahead marked the turn toward Connecticut. If the park- way was less choked than the others there would be only an hour more. In the two years since they’d moved down to Washington, D.C., they had not found a good time of day or night to travel. Traf- fic on the Northeast Corridor was unrelenting. Tonight, they’d find some hotel around the Massachusetts border, and in the morning they would be on the first ferry to the island, seven weeks this sum- mer instead of their usual two. If Chris had agreed because he knew how much Kate needed it, he hadn’t let on, and she wasn’t saying.
Dave had asked if they could stop for the trunk on the way through. She could not imagine having it on vacation with them, but Dave Martin now had that effect on people; they jumped, they put things on hold, they accommodated.
This would be the first time they would be getting together with the children but without Elizabeth. Kate and Chris hadn’t brought James and Piper when they came up for the funeral, a maud- lin affair made worse by the baby in the front row drooling and pinwheeling her arms at the photo of her mother on an easel. Now the kids would be playing together like old times, but for the adults, all the roles would be unfamiliar. Dave would be host and hostess, Kate just a polite guest in the kitchen. He might jiggle the baby on one hip as he composed plates and poured small cups of milk, and Kate would offer help, trying not to sound as if she questioned his competence. She would have to be social glue for the men, who had only ever come together because of their wives, and someone would have to take the lead with the kids. We don’t throw sand at our friends, and It’s time to take turns with the backhoe. That had been Eliza- beth’s job.
It had all been Elizabeth’s job.
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“Nichole Bernier writes as though she were born knowing how to do so. She understands the fragility of the human heart and also the enduring strength of even imperfect relationships. The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is a gripping book with a delicate, tender core. You will read on to unravel a mystery but also, to be moved,page after page.” ROBIN BLACK, AUTHOR OF IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS
“I loved this bittersweet novel, which manages to be both a compelling mystery and a wise meditation on friendship, marriage and motherhood in an age of great anxiety. Bernier will have you thinking about her characters long after you’ve turned the final page.”J. COURTNEY SULLIVAN, NEW YORK TIMESBESTSELLING AUTHOR OF MAINE
Nichole is the author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D, a novel inspired by a family friend’s healing following the September 11th attacks.
Nichole has written for magazines including Elle,Self, Health, Men’s Journal, Child and Yankee. A 14-year contributing editor to Conde Nast Traveler magazine, she was previously on staff as a features writer, golf and ski editor and television spokesperson. After she married and moved to Boston, she joined Boston Magazine as a senior editor, where she supervised restaurant reviews, the annual Best of Boston feature, and wrote an investigative piece about environmental toxins in the suburbs that won the magazine a City and Regional Magazine Award. She is one of the founders of the literary blog Beyond the Margins, which features daily essays on the craft and business of publishing, and received her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, where she received the 1993 award for literary journalism.
She is at work on her second novel, and lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children.