Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. Tackles September 11 and the Private Lives of Women

*Don't forget to sign up for my giveaway of this novel, running through Thursday night. Click here to enter!*

Many books, movies, documentaries, and other forms of expression have tackled the tragedy of September 11, 2001. However, more than ten years after the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., a new incarnation of 9/11 stories are cropping up: those that are set in the time period surrounding the attacks, but don't describe that terrible day directly.

Set in the summer of 2002, after Americans' lives were rocked into a new, hyper-aware existence that previous fall, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by debut author Nichole Bernier seeks to describe one woman's emotional overhaul in those fearful months. After many Americans have settled back into their daily lives, Kate is unable to move past her paralyzing fears. Although she goes about her daily activities, caring for children, keeping a home, she does so with an ever-present anxiety.

Hidden in her spare tire well, Kate has hidden an emergency kit, something she doesn't even share with her husband. Chris believes it's time for Kate to move on from her initial panic, but she's unable to do so. In addition to the events on September 11, Kate's friend Elizabeth was killed in a plane crash in August, just weeks before. This, coupled with the emotional shock the entire country experiences, is something Kate simply can't move past with ease.

Months after Elizabeth's death, Kate receives a letter from her lawyer, entrusting Kate with a trunk containing Elizabeth's journals. On their way to a lengthy stay on Great Rock Island, a fictionalized version of Martha's Vineyard, Kate and Chris stop at Elizabeth's old house to pick up the trunk from her husband Dave.

Nichole Bernier tells this story by varying between the summer weeks on the island, as Kate reads the diaries, and flashbacks from Elizabeth's journals. The flashbacks allow Elizabeth to emerge as a character both for the reader and for Kate, as the private Elizabeth turns out to be quite different from the public face she wore. The journals begin in her twelfth year and go through 2001, painting a picture of Elizabeth through the years.

A tension surrounds the entire process, driving the novel's conflict. Although there are no major events in the plot of the novel -- very little actually happens -- the journals serve as a catalyst for emotional upheaval. Kate's reading the diaries seems to upset everyone around her -- her own husband Chris, Elizabeth's widower Dave, even Kate's friend Max who operates a bakery/ cafe on the island. These tensions force the characters to reexamine their lives, decide on the important things, and discover who they all really are.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. packs a strong emotional punch. Disguised as a novel about the year following September 11, 2001, it is actually a novel about people. The private lives we lead, our self-identities, and the repeated tests we must endure in the process of living. Despite the fact that the novel tackles some difficult, weighty topics, Bernier also inserts hope. Although it is a novel of two women, it is also a novel with ideas that reach much further than their small world.

Nichole Bernier is a magazine journalist turned novelist. Before the publication of her first novel The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., Bernier's writing could be found in various magazines, including Conde Nast Traveler and Boston Magazine. For a sampling of her magazine work, click here. She is also one of the founders of the literary blog Beyond the Margins. You can find out more about the author by following her on Twitter, adding her on Facebook, or reading her personal blog Sidebar.

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