The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. : A Powerful Debut Novel

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:

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The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
by Nichole Bernier
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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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“An absorbing, bittersweet novel that examines the vast grey area between protecting and deceiving the ones we love.” VANESSA DIFFENBAUGH, AUTHOR OF THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS“The question of what makes a life, secrets shared and secrets kept, and the complete makeup of a single human being are the cornerstones of Bernier’s introspective debut… Bernier’s tale blends bittersweet heartaches with soaring truths in a style reminiscent of Jodi Picoult and Anita Shreve.” JULIE TREVELYAN, BOOKLIST

“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

“A smart, poignant novel about the bittersweet choices women make and the secrets they keep. This is one of those rare novels that’s so real you forget it’s written; I literally carried it around with me, and I missed the characters when I was done. ” JENNA BLUM, NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF THOSE WHO SAVE US 
Nichole Bernier

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,SelfHealthMen’s JournalChild 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.

 

 

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