Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

By Nichole Bernier
Crown/Random House, 309 pgs
Submitted by Random House
Rating: 5

"Kate lowered her nose to Emily's head and breathed in Johnson's baby shampoo, a hormonal cocktail that among women who have children not long out of diapers drew the Pavlovian, Another." There, there. Is that not the most beautiful sentence you have ever read? If not then please leave me a comment with your contender because I have to read that book now. I read this sentence, page 9, and swooned. I knew then that Elizabeth D. would be a 5.

I proceeded to lose myself in questions of marriage, motherhood, profession, individuality and identity.The classic and ever-present question: Can you ever really know another person?

The aforementioned Elizabeth died in a plane crash, leaving a husband and 3 small children. She has been keeping a journal faithfully since she was a child and all of these journals are locked in a trunk. In her will Elizabeth left her journals to her best friend Kate, also married with 2 small children, with the express wish that Kate read them. Summer vacation is coming up, a few weeks in a rented bungalow on Great Rock Island, so Kate brings the trunk with her and begins with the oldest journal.

Kate had thought she knew Elizabeth to be the consumate mother and mate, blessed by the goddess with innate talent for homemaking and compassion for family, a born nurturer, satisfied. But this is not the Elizabeth portrayed in the journals. That Elizabeth kept secrets: she had had a younger sister; she had attended the fine arts program in painting at NYU; she spent a year in Florence as a student; she had had a miscarriage before the birth of her son; she had loved her job in advertising; she suffered with post-partum depression. In the months before her death Elizabeth had met a man named Michael and she was going to meet him in California when she died. But that fact is not as it seems either.

Page 188: "Why is it so hard for me? I'm always tripped up by what I think is expected of me, trying to act the right way. This should not be brain surgery. Feed child, dress child, cook food, pay bills, and don't let in utter strangers when you're home alone." This poor woman, oh Elizabeth! You tried so hard, didn't you? Domesticity didn't come as naturally to you as you assumed it would; as you assumed it did for the other mothers in the play group.  

Page 200: "I cried on the train, face turned to the window. Who am I kidding? You can do all your gymnastics to try and fool Mother Nature, use all your fancy gadgets and pills and pumps and sitters, but biology always wins in the end."

Page 131: "I knew then that it's not true anymore that my choices are open. Unless you want to breach every expectation, live life with no boundaries or limitations. There are repercussions..." I read this and remember how I always thought I wanted to live that way, question everything, ask "Why?" But I no longer have the courage for that sort of thing. Or is it "courage" to accept the strictures? Is the better part of valor to assume the mantle of self-discipline, expectation and tradition? Or maybe not. Two of my three children don't want to marry or have children and I can't help but wonder what bearing my choices have had on them. How can you know?

Page 200: "Standing there with the AAA guy I saw my life as an endless loop of the same scene. No matter how many times I imagined driving away or how many times I packed a bag and really did it, I would never reach the FDR." I recognize this scene. I still get the same urge when I find myself west bound on I-20 late in the afternoon or evening. I have managed to stave off departure to date.

And then this on page 123: "I watched him walk away toward the corner with a rolling gait that bounces on the balls of his feet, solid and heavy like a draft horse, but light like a very contented one. He looks as if he could carry you a thousand miles if he had to." I knew a man years ago who walked like that. And he could have. He chose to carry someone else, alas. The ability to string the perfect words into the perfect order that evokes a memory such as this is rare. And Nichole Bernier is a rare talent. This is her first novel and I can hardly wait, anticipating the delights to come. Write faster Nichole! Write faster!

For more about the author:

The author is also a founder of the literary website

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1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful and heartfelt review! I will read this book.