The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D

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This book gave lots of moments for pause and reflection. The elementary school librarian who chose it has also chosen other reflective books in the past, such as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or Three Cups of Tea, but neither were anywhere near as insightful as this book.

On a scale of 1 - 5

Sex: 1

Religion: 0

Gruesome: 1

Suspense: 1

Morality: 3

Sex - a few passing references to activities in the marital bed

Religion - there is a complete absence of religion in this book, unless you count a minor "when God knows there were plenty that did harm". (p. 65) The absence of any reference to God could be a whole discussion in itself. Particularly because the book has a background of the post-9/11 days and the fear of a mother about protecting her family from the evils of the world. Couple that with the main theme about handling a friend and fellow-mother's death, and it is obvious that there would have been many, many opportunities for a religious character to question their faith.

Gruesome - other than the back drop of a mother's death in a plane crash that is not detailed, and the references to world violence and chemical attacks, there is nothing gruesome in this book

Suspense - there could be some suspense around finding out who Elizabeth was and while it did pique my curiosity it wasn't riveting. I was about 80% through the book when I was surprised by something and that spurred me to finish quicker than I might have without the surprise however it certainly didn't incent me to stay up even one minute late to read it through.

Morality - the characters in this book are so average and normal, perhaps more so than a lot of people would like to admit. They go through daily life, trying to raise their kids and interact with their community the best they can. Sometimes they hold things back from their spouse or their friends, which is really the crux of the book - how much do we hold back and is it dishonest to live that way.

Elizabeth D.'s sister died when they were girls, something Elizabeth always blamed herself for. It may have been the cause of her family's disintegration, but certainly nothing Elizabeth caused. Elizabeth's mom seemed had some difficulty dealing with it, and other things as well. Elizabeth left NYU art school to go to Paris. She enjoyed her time there but came home to care for her ailing mother. So, after a non-traditional start, Elizabeth eventually settles into marriage and family. They move to a new community and she joins a play group where she meets Kate.

When I read the jacket description before I started the book I was very excited. I thought this would be a book that I could really relate to and was so excited to make a new best friend in the characters. But as I began to read I was initially disappointed. One of the main plots is that Kate inherits the journals that Elizabeth kept from the time she was a young girl. Kate has to decide what to do with them so she begins to read them. So that's what I wanted to do - read the journals. But there really weren't many entries that the reader was allowed to see. Instead we read a lot about Kate's life.

It wasn't boring but it also wasn't overly captivating - in the beginning. Then, as suddenly as the turn of a page, I was these women! This was my life on the pages! Women struggling with giving up their own identity and career to be a stay-at-home mom but not wanting to let that other part of themselves go completely and trying desperately to hold on to some shred of it. Nichole Bernier found a way to capture the emotions that so many women feel and put them down into words that many women could never express on their own.

Discussion Questions

Question: What was "the right thing to do with the journals"? Should Kate have shared them with Dave? What about preserving Dave's memories?

Question: What parallels can you draw between Elizabeth and Kate?

Discuss: Sisterhood Kate and Rachel's trips had "a subtext of sisterly bonding and closing the age gap...harder to bridge were the things Rachel had said in their childhood". (p. 45)

Discuss: "Silences, like solitude, could contain any amount of comfort or discomfort, any degree of truth." (p. 61)

Question: At what times in your life have you looked back and "analyzed in hindsight" (p. 62), like...last year at this time we ___ or one year ago today I was ___

Discuss: "...whatever's going to happen is whatever's going to happen, and the person of a year ago didn't know it...It doesn't cast any judgement on the person you wre, or make you naive. / ...It's just a point of curiosity. If anything, it's a reality check for the way you are living today." (p. 63)

Discuss: "Why was it hard to believe that things you couldn't see or understand might help, when God knows there were plenty that did harm." (p. 65)

Question: How did you feel when you read Elizabeth's journal statement, "But the price I'll pay for not having to do this alone will be never having the certainty that I can count on him." (p. 145)?

Question: Was Elizabeth's whole life a charade, "Belle dal fuori. Good appearances." (p. 177)? She pretended she had no sister, she pretended with the new moms that she didn't miss her old life (p. 175), she didn't like Dave's leaving but was a "good sport" (p. 174).

Discuss: "I have to accept that I have no more idea of what happens in the solitary parts of his mind than he has of mine, and wonder if all couples are like this. In love and simpatico in many ways but ultimately unknowing and unknowable." (p. 194)

Question: Anna's "last words were unfinished like everything about her." (p. 195) Is this another layer to the title?

Discuss: "What if all mothers experienced times of hopeless obliteration, and no one told?" (p. 199)

Question: Did reading how Kate's perception was off when Elizabeth wanted work make you wonder about anyone in your life and how you might have misunderstood them?

Question: Were you suspicious of Dave wanting to shower inside?

Question: Did Dave "have a right" to the journals?

Discuss: Kate imagines life if she took a job - "She would resent the job at times and her family at others, but above all resent herself for whatever failing made her unable to split herself between the two." (p. 250)

Discuss: Kate concludes that, "Elizabeth had moved beyond setbacks and fear with methodical attention to what was required of her." (p. 262) Is this possible in real life?

Discuss: "After Elizabeth died, the sound bites about her went like this: great mother, great wife, great friend. The moment a person is gone it becomes critical to define her, making a life into a thing memorialized. The complex and contradictory person she had been was slowly being reduced to its essence: she was dedicated, naturally maternal; she was all heart, the true center of her home; a devoted member of the community of moms, a galvanizer, a workhorse. To what extent these things were true was beside the point. In a reduction some attributes are exaggerated, and some evaporate." (p. 265)

Question: "At what age, she wondered, do kids develop a barometer for truth and lies, and for that murky area where grown-ups act one way while feeling entirely another?" (p. 293) So what is the age and how should our behavior be adapted to this consideration?

Question: What do you think of Elizabeth's decision to handle things alone?

Question: What happened to the last journal?

Discuss: Read the last four paragraphs of the book and share your thoughts.

Question: How do Kate and Chris move forward?

Theme Ideas

Have art books laid out on end tables or coffee tables.

Serve coffee and scones like Kate had while reading when the kids were at camp.

Serve Vegetable and/or Pepperoni pizza like when Kate and Chris took the kids to the pizzeria.

Recreate Kate and Chris's anniversary dinner with Gorgonzola Salad with Cubed Beets, a bowl of Steamed Mussels, Chocolate Fondue with Berries, Cheesecake with Pomegranate Sauce and Wine.

Serve pastries or baked goods to tie in to Kate's career.

Grill hamburgers, serve beer in bottles, and have book club in the back yard like you were at a summer beach cottage.

Serve Surf n Turf like Kate and Chris's last night on the island.

Serve ice cream in waffle cones like an island treat for kids.

Include a poem from Pablo Neruda on your invitation. The book is not specific which poem is referenced, but Sonnet 17 may be a good choice.

Play John Denver "Annie's Song" and Donna Summer "MacArthur Park".