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The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.: A Novel Paperback – March 12, 2013
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Author One-on-One: Nichole Bernier and Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro's most recent books include the novels Black & White and Family History and the best-selling memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion. She lives with her husband and son in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
Dani Shapiro: This is your first novel after years of being a magazine editor and writer. What made you decide to write this story? Joan Didion describes material she wants to write as having "a shimmer" around its edges. What was this shimmer for you?
Nichole Bernier: I have always been intrigued and haunted by the notion of legacy, the trace people leave behind once they're gone--how others define them, and what they've done to define themselves. I lost a friend in the September 11 terrorist attacks, and in the days afterward, I fielded the media calls for her husband so he wouldn't have to describe his loss repeatedly. I tried to offer short memorial statements that were meaningful and true but in the end they were still sound bites, and I couldn't stop wondering what would she have wanted said about her. What was the difference between the way I saw her, and the way she would have wanted to be seen, and remembered?
My book is not in any way about my friend, but grew out of the what-ifs: What if a mother left behind hints of a more complex and mysterious person than their loved ones thought they'd known? The shimmer for me was the incomplete obit, the discrepancy between the public and the private self. We all die with bits of our story untold.
DS: The backdrop of your novel is the year following terrorist attacks, a time that I've written about too. What made you choose that tumultuous period as your backdrop?
NB: That was an extraordinary time when it felt as if the range of threats--anthrax, mad cow disease, poisoned reservoirs--were not only possible, but likely. I was a new mother that year, and I think many of us had the impulse to grab our loved ones and run. But we didn't know where to go, or from what. Most of us moved on from that place of paralysis. But it was fascinating to me to create a character who could not: someone who was confident and competent, but felt the strain of keeping a family safe when no one knew where safe was.
DS: The spine of the story is the inheritance of a trunk of journals. This was an ambitious structure, and I'm curious why you chose it. Do you feel there's any correlation between journals and today's blogs? Or does today's blogosphere make journals seem historic and quaint?
NB: Initially, I thought of journals as a way to give voice to someone who was no longer living, and provide a source of strength to someone left behind, struggling in a world that felt dangerously arbitrary. I wove the two women's storylines to show how they might have had some of the same experiences, but perceived them differently. But it turned out to be more difficult than I thought; the parallel timelines had to consistently meet in some narrative way--thematically, or with some common event--so the reader would feel the way the friends connect, but also pass one another by.
The evolution of blogs has always been interesting to me. In journals, people are working through questions looking for comfort and insight, essentially asking themselves, What would the wisest person I know advise me on this? It's a conversation with the best part of oneself.
Blogs can be many things--entertaining, poignant, cathartic. But even with the most sincere of intentions, blogs are crafted with the consciousness of another reader. It's the difference between a candid photo and a portrait. Not much in our world is truly private anymore, which makes journals all the more rare.
DS: A big part of your novel concerns two mothers struggling to balance their jobs--or finding ways to keep a finger in work they loved--while being engaged in raising their children. As a mother of five, how do you manage both raising your kids and finding time to write?
NB: It's a challenge, and I won't pretend it's not. I'm not usually at the computer when ideas come along, so I jot notes on whatever scrap of paper happens to be nearby, and sometimes type on my cellphone when I pretend to be taking pictures on the soccer sidelines. Time is scarce and precious, so there's no room for procrastination anymore; when I sit down to write, I've been planning what to work on in advance. More than anything it helps to have a supportive spouse, and my husband knows the greatest gift is the gift of time.
Still, no matter how many kids you have or how supportive your partner, there are only 24 hours in a day, and being busy forces you to triage what you value most. After I started my novel most of my hobbies fell by the wayside. But it clarifies what's most important to you--to know, say, that you can enjoy life without making gourmet meals or running a marathon, but you can't not write.
I also think it's good for my children to see that their mother loves them and loves her work, too. In a way, the kids have come to feel an ownership in the writing life; we have a lot of events at our home, and the kids enjoy talking to authors and passing food trays. It has been fascinating to watch their evolving awareness of writers as real people behind the bylines--people who started out loving to read, just like they do.
A Reader’s Guide for The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.: A Novel, by Nichole Bernier
The questions and discussion topics below are designed to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Many of the characters in the novel keep substantial secrets from one another for a variety of reasons. Whose do you think is the most damaging, and why?
2. In the year following September 11th, Kate’s fears reached a boiling point where any danger seemed possible, and she was paralyzed by the responsibility of keeping her family safe. Could you relate to this sentiment, and in what ways do you think that has diminished for you and in society at large, more than a decade later?
3. Kate conceals her anxiety because she is afraid it will make her seem less strong and competent. Do you think this fear is still warranted in these times of widespread knowledge about depression and anxiety, or is there still a stigma?
4. Why do you think Elizabeth was so private about her sister, and about her aspirations for meaningful work? Why do you think she never confided in Kate (and others) about how important her work was to her, even though Kate herself was passionate about her work?
5. Do you think the difference between being a stay-at-home mom or a mother with a career outside the home still creates barriers between women? Do you think if women show too much passion for their work they can be perceived as less motherly? If you have belonged to a playgroup, PTA or other social organization of mothers, have you sensed tensions, stereotypes or expectations based on working status?
6. When Elizabeth is in high school, she concludes, “Smile, and the world likes you more.” Do you think that is true?
7. Elizabeth did not start out as a socially dexterous person likely to be the hub and social glue of a neighborhood mom’s group. At what point (or points) in her life did she make the conscious transition from loner to joiner? Have you ever done something like this?
9. Early in the novel, Kate wonders about what it would be like if she wandered into her husband’s home office some night to read silently while he worked--as they used to, earlier in marriage--instead of retreating to her own spot in the living room. “It was a gift, solitude. But solitude with another person, that was an art.” Do you agree? Do you think this becomes easier or harder after years as a couple?
10. Which of the two women’s storylines were you most interested in reading, and with which did you more closely identify?
11. What was your interpretation of Elizabeth’s feelings for Kate? Of Kate’s for Elizabeth?
12. If someone is shouldering a burden that would cause their family pain, do you think dealing with it silently is the most giving or the most selfish thing? Is it possible to be both at once?
10. Which of the two women’s storylines were you most interested in reading, and with which did you more closely identify?
“Bernier’s excellent storytelling skills will keep you pondering long after the final page.”
—The Washingon Post
“Bernier masterfully eases open the doors that guard our deepest fears and, against a backdrop of a New England beach vacation, sweeps in fresh air and hope.”
“Thanks to incredibly realistic characters, this smart, bittersweet tale brilliantly captures what it means to be a mom, wife and friend.”
“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 Times bestselling author of Commencement and 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 and The Stormchasers
“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
“An absorbing, bittersweet novel that examines the vast grey area between protecting and deceiving the ones we love.”
—Vanessa Diffenbaugh, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers
“Written with exquisite grace, depth, and honesty, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. 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.”
—Randy Susan Meyers, international bestselling author of The Murderer’s Daughters
“Debut novelist Bernier’s thoughtful observations on friendship, identity, motherhood, work, and marriage wrap around the mystery of Elizabeth, whose journal writing enlivens the book and gives readers much to think about. This literary novel should be a favorite of book groups and have broad appeal beyond.”
“Moments of beauty and depth of spirit will appeal to readers interested in secrets revealed.”
“This exquisite and honest portrait of friendship and motherhood unfurls a suspenseful plot whose jaw-dropping surprise ending is one that readers will be sure to discuss long after the book has been finished...Bernier successfully explores how women manage to balance so much in their everyday life and the complicated emotions (guilt, frustration, fear) that go along with being a working mother...The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. is an important read for anyone who dares to ask just how well we really know our friends and neighbors, and what those discoveries mean about us.”
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The character development was rich and just about the time you think you thought you knew what was coming next, you were surprised at the direction that the story took. You felt like you were eavesdropping into Elizabeth's life when reading her journal pages, yet the more you read the more confused you were about her past.
The ending wasn't what I had surmised as I was reading the book, so I was pleasantly surprised with learning what was going on with Elizabeth prior to her death. I had much more sinister thoughts so it was nice to see that the storyline hadn't gone down that road.
A great book, the "journal" reading was interesting and not at all boring like it could have been and the writing was superb.
~ from The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Without knowing why, or even how, it happens, a person can fill a void in our lives so quickly and settle into our being so fully that, surely, they must know us as well as we know ourselves. Even better. I have such a friend, who can tell at first glance (or at first long-distance "hello" over the phone) if I'm lying or telling the truth when I answer the question, "How are you?" Yet, even through such deep connections, how well can we really know another person?
This question ripples throughout Nichole Bernier's debut novel, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., as one woman is bequeathed the journals of her good friend.
In reading the journals of Elizabeth Martin, Kate discovers a side to her friend she hadn't known or expected. The truth of Elizabeth's marriage, her friendship with Kate, and her life ambitions unfolds, and, with that truth, so does Kate's own pain and understanding of her relationships and dreams. In those discoveries, Kate finds strength to face her fears and embrace what's genuine. This book speaks to the anxiety we so often hold about the future and to the relief we find in finally letting go.
The literary elements are delightful. There is a seamless interweaving of flashback. I particularly loved the way Kate digressed, so illustrative of a multi-tasking woman. The author's use of imagery (particularly sounds), simile and metaphor made this reader stop and re-read many times. "The girl was curled horizontally across the top of the pillow, catlike, and her purr of a snore quieted as Kate pivoted her back under the covers."
This book will make you question and re-evaluate your relationships as well as yourself. It spurs a depth of perception, an introspective in the reader. Who do we really know? Does everyone have this inner self not shown to others? Is that the real self or is the self we portray to the world the real one? It certainly illustrates the multi-faceted tapestry we weave in our own minds.
And best of all in this reader's mind is the story utterly captures the delights, desires, longings, fears and ultimately satisfaction of women, motherhood and marriage.
I was completely engrossed in this book about Elizabeth D.'s life and her journals. It is beautifully written--not a book to race through. It digs into emotional territory and makes you think about people and what they choose to present on the outside...what shapes them and haunts them...what makes them struggle to be the person they think they "should" be.
From the author:
"What if a mother left behind hints of a more complex and mysterious person than her loved ones thought they'd known? The shimmer for me was the incomplete obit, the discrepancy between the public and the private self. We all die with bits of our story untold."
As she reads the journals, she discovers that she really had only tapped the surface of knowing her friend. Things she had taken for granted were not at all what they seemed to be.As she delves deeper into the journals,she takes a second look at recent developments in her own marriage and choices she has made.
I had some trouble at times relating to these women. But I definitely identified more with Elizabeth than Kate.But then again, looking beyond the superficial, I did develop some empathy for her.And this book kept me thinking long after I had finished it.