Sam Still Reading's Reviews > The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D

The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier
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Aug 26, 2012

really liked it
Recommended to Sam Still Reading by: from the publisher
Recommended for: those looking for an interesting book

This review is divided into 3 parts (it was for a read along, thank you to the publisher for providing the book). Please note there are **spoilers**.

Week 1
Once I opened this book, I already knew that something bad had happened to this Elizabeth D – why else would she leave her journals unfinished? The beautiful cover of the book (a picnic basket left on a bench on a verandah) was also slightly ominous. (Off topic, this is one of the most beautifully designed books I’ve read for some time – beautiful embossed swirls, lovely fold out covers with the blurb and author information. Well done Lisa White for the cover design!) The book opens talking about someone called Kate, her husband Chris and her two children, James and Piper. It delves into Kate and her family’s life straightaway and we need to work out how these people relate to the mysterious Elizabeth D. We find out quite quickly that Elizabeth D is dead (in a plane crash in New York, shortly before 9/11) and Kate and family are en route to her widower’s house to pick up her journals.

This opened up numerous questions for me. Why a plane crash that was soon overshadowed by the events of September 11, 2001? Is that symbolic of Elizabeth’s life – to be overshadowed? Why is Kate, Elizabeth’s friend to have the journals and not her husband or children at a later date?

Kate and Chris are on their way to an island, where Chris is working from home and Kate reads the journals. The narrative becomes entwined between Kate’s life and Elizabeth’s past. Questions are asked about what is the ‘proper’ role as a mother (work, don’t work) and how to deal with grief.

The book took me a little while to get into, as I needed to get the characters straight in my head and who fit in where. As I read more, I enjoyed the relaxed pace of Kate’s days on the island and reading about the Elizabeth the readers don’t know, but the other characters find…well, out of character.

I must admit that I haven’t put the book down to wait for next week – I’ve continued reading because I can’t wait to read more about Elizabeth.

Week 2
Back again for Week 2 of this readalong and I have a confession to make – I’ve already skipped ahead and finished the book. The part we’re discussing today (pages 137 through to 272) is where the book became really interesting for me.

Why did it become interesting? For starters, I think Kate really came into her own as a character and stopped being the vehicle for Elizabeth’s journals. I think the symbolism of Kate smashing the lock of the trunk containing the journals helped to delineate her from Elizabeth further. By smashing the lock, she’s also destroying the part of her life that Elizabeth represented – the happy stay at home mums.

Motherhood also plays a big role in this section. While Kate has previously felt that Elizabeth’s life revolved around her children and that her only role was to be a mother, we now know that to be false. Elizabeth really enjoyed her work in graphic design and was somewhat resentful at having to give it up (as well as college to care for her dying mother). Elizabeth has Kate questioning whether she wants to either have another child or to return to her work as a chef. It’s not a decision that can be made easily – not for Kate or anyone.

I really enjoyed learning about how Elizabeth and Dave met – the grieving widower we first met appears quite different to the aspiring golf champion. The juxtaposition shows just how much grief can change us, in addition to giving up something you love for someone you love.

Kate’s paranoia (consciousness?) about terror attacks and diseases also starts to become more prominent. Her insistence on the children washing and showering after touching the rabbits is overkill, and even Chris, her husband notices. Is it just the jumpiness of a post 9/11 world where everyone was looking at backpacks suspiciously or is there something more personal going on? 9/11 was probably the first event in Kate’s life where she would have felt directly threatened by events beyond her control. As a mother, she naturally feels protective towards her children, but where do you draw the line? What is worth worrying about and what isn’t? I think Kate’s recurrent thoughts about her family being threatened show just how protective she is as a mother, as well as capturing the essence of those times really well.

There were some great light moments in this section too – loved how Elizabeth called 911 when she dropped the thermometer! This also shows Elizabeth’s fierce love for her child, even though she doubts it sometimes. Also her love for Dave, even though she feels bitterly the way he disappeared before they were married. Was her trip to Joshua Tree payback for that?

Week 3
My thoughts on finishing this book were initially that I should have guessed the ending! There were so many hints sprinkled through the first and second sections that Elizabeth was a good candidate for cancer. Her mother (and aunt too I think) died relatively young from cancer, she had the abnormal Pap smear – all signs that she was likely to have an inheritable BRCA mutation. I am really kicking myself for not working it out!

I found it amazing that Elizabeth didn’t tell Dave about her diagnosis. Going through probable metastatic cancer with a poor prognosis is hell, let alone doing it alone. Why did she keep it to herself? It must have been an incredible burden. Was it Dave’s reaction (or lack of one) to the abnormal test results previously? Did Elizabeth think he’d disappear again? What about the likelihood of passing the mutation on to her children – shouldn’t they be allowed to know the truth?

That brings us on to Dave. He really thought that Elizabeth died on the way to a rendezvous with a lover. Is the truth more painful to bear – that Elizabeth refused to divulge the truth about her health? Does that show that Elizabeth didn’t trust Dave or that she loved him so much she was willing to save him pain? It’s an interesting conundrum. Which would you choose?

Kate’s determination to tell Dave the truth about what happened to Elizabeth seemed to drive a wedge between her and her husband, Chris. As it turned out that Dave was already discovering the truth without the aid of the journals, did she really need to? I think that she did. Kate had a firm sense that justice and loyalty to Elizabeth should be done, almost at any cost. The ending, where Kate comes home to Chris, gives us an inkling that everything may just turn out okay for them.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and analysis during the readalong. While I’m not a mother, I could emphasise with Kate about how scary the world was post 9/11 and I really felt that Nichole Bernier captured that sense of unease and wariness. The theme of women having ‘multiple lives’ also resonated strongly – women these days are expected to be mum, career superwoman, lover, fashion plate, tech savvy, chef extraordinaire…the list goes on. (I believe it is similar for men too!) We can’t be everything – Kate is forced to face the truth herself – she can’t be the Best Mum, Best Wife and Best Chef. All we can do is what we believe is best for ourselves and our loved ones.
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