A Life’s Legacy

UnfinishedWorkThe Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D by Nichole Bernier takes place in the summer that followed 9/11, a time of great social fragility when perspectives on risk and safety were warped by the sheer weight of pressure put upon them. The atmosphere of this time, one in which the holding together of daily life was so tense and delicate that any false move seemed to signal an implosion, is brilliantly realised in this novel, and intrinsic to its events.

Kate Spenser is still grieving the loss of her good friend, Elizabeth, killed in a plane crash shortly before the twin towers tragedy, when she learns she has been left a strange bequest in her will. Unbeknownst to her, Elizabeth was a keen journal writer, and she has left a trunk of journals dating back to her childhood to Kate, ‘because she’s fair and sensitive and would know what should be done with them’. Knowing what should be done becomes suddenly more complex when Elizabeth’s husband, Dave, indicates his severe displeasure about the bequest; he’s read the end of her final journal in which Elizabeth talks excitedly about travelling to see a man named Michael. Having put two and two together to make five, he is wounded in his pride at the thought of an outsider learning the intimate story of his marriage, particularly if it’s one that humiliates him.

But in fact, Kate starts to learn far more about her friend than she ever imagined she would. She has taken the trunk on a family holiday to Great Rock Island, and every evening once her young children are in bed, she is drawn hypnotically back to the journals. The Elizabeth she thought she knew was a devoted wife and mother, a homebody with an obvious knack for dealing with children, a quiet, reserved and laid-back woman who displayed no regrets. Yet all the time, underneath the façade, Elizabeth has been suffering and frustrated, forced to abandon a cherished career as an artist and grappling still with an unhappy past that refuses to be forgotten.

While she reads with increasing discomfort at her own blindness, Kate realises she needs to put her own house in order. The journals have arrived at a time in her life when her marriage is shaky and her own future uncertain. In the wake of 9/11, Kate knows she’s lost touch with her sensible self and menace seems to stalk her little family, nameless dread has become part of the fabric of her life. Elizabeth’s story forces Kate to assess the real meaning of honesty with the ones she loves, and how hiding the truth may not be an act of selfless bravery, but a cowardly act of dissimulation that leaves others out in the cold.

This was a family story with an emotionally intelligent framework and I very much appreciated it, particularly the way it dug deep into the culture of pretending that threatens to engulf us all in a wave of imperfect positive thinking. I’ve written elsewhere about this; my own slow coming-to-understanding that hiding negative emotions is a good way to go quietly crazy. And we live in a culture that is appalling at risk assessment, and goodness only knows we ought to address that problem before it completely destroys ordinary, everyday peace of mind. We live in a world that thrusts more and more sensationalised problems down our throats every day, while insisting that we put on happy faces and think optimistically. Surely the next big catastrophe will arise out of precisely that foolish contradiction.

But I also wished I knew what Dark Puss would think of this book, as it also operates within a very clearly gendered universe, something I think is quite realistic when parents are raising small children. Take for instance this passage about the widower, Dave:

In the beginning there’d been a rush to charity, everyone wanting to take the kids, a thinly veiled assumption that it was too much for a father to care for his three children alone. He’d told Kate that if he was seen in the grocery store struggling through the shopping with the kids, there would be babysitting offers and lasagna on his doorstep by dusk. No matter that Elizabeth had done this, all the time. Only a few months after Elizabeth’s death, Brittain had called Kate in Washington to say that she’d seen Dave doing yard work with the kids in the driveway, and that maybe the playgroup could pull together a fund-raiser for a contract with a landscaping service? It had been offered and declined, offered and decline, until finally he asked Kate to tell them no thanks, really. What they would never understand was that all he wanted was to mow his own damn lawn with no one watching, or offering to do it for him, or bringing a meal over afterwards as a condolence for his having to mow a lawn without a wife to watch his kids.’

The only part of this rich and intriguing novel that perplexed me was the attitude of Kate’s husband, Chris, who deeply resents the time and attention Kate gives to the journals. It only makes sense in a traditionally gendered world in which wives are devoted to their families and perform that devotion flawlessly. In a month of reading books about women’s evolving place in the world, it’s a distressing thought that this astute novel depicts a culture in which wives and mothers are still so tightly bound to domesticity. Overall this was an impressive novel – not quite literature, more a literary beach read. I’d definitely look out for the author’s next book.


22 thoughts on “A Life’s Legacy

  1. Your point about gendering makes me think of the time my mother had her first heart attack and dad was left to run the shop on his own. Every day one of the customers would bring him a meal and the washing always mysteriously disappeared at the beginning of the week only to come back neatly washed and ironed at the end. I wonder if the same thing would have happened had the positions been reversed and it had been my father in hospital? I’ll never know but somehow I doubt it.

    • Somehow I doubt it, too. I mean, in many ways it’s lovely that your neighbours rallied round so well, but when will we see male neighbours rushing to take women left on their own a casserole they’ve cooked without there being any strings attached?

  2. Hmm, interesting especially in light of your recent reading with Dark Puss. But the excerpt about the widower raising the three kids and getting so many offers of help says much about society. Women don’t get those offers. I wonder if men do because they are seen as being incapable somehow? Or maybe it is that men are supposed to be above the drudgery or “women’s” work?

    • I was thinking about the scenario of a woman, left on her own, and wondering when the male neighbour would come round with an offer of dinner, or a quiche he’d made in a gesture of pure kindness with no strings attached? Honestly, though this will not make me popular with my male readers, I don’t think men are as good at seeing and following through on the opportunity to help another person out when they have nothing to gain from it. Does that sound awfully harsh? My husband has spoken before about men being less good at ‘returning the social ball’ generally, and certainly not out of sheer compassion for another.

    • I’m the wrong person to ask as I don’t read enough of this sort of book to know what stock is right now. Dave is more developed in the narrative, and he seemed plausible – he doesn’t want the help from the neighbours and is quite capable of bringing the children up. His main fear seems to be reflected humiliation from the diary, and that sounded about right. Chris could have been developed a bit more, I think. I’d like to have understood why he reacted the way he did. He seemed just a bit of a jerk to me! 🙂

      • hah i don’t read this kind of book at all, so stock is stock is stock. the whiny, insensitive, selfish, do-nothing husband stock is what i meant. if these men are both a-holes, but you aren’t given a solid reason why; or weren’t pulled into their characters enough to empathize with them, then i’d call ’em stock: the jerky husband to justify the female leads actions. sometimes this works, sometimes it’s just lame. sometimes, it’s a turn off. if the husbands are too crappy you spend the whople book thinking, “lord lady, grow some spine and send this guy packing already”

  3. I saw this on your sidebar and was quite curious about it! Do you think that now you will be reading all your books (novels of this sort) with an eye towards gender roles? It’s interesting to think about stories in that light–I guess the more things change the more they really stay the same. So was Dave as hapless as the others thought he might be with kids and no wife? Or was it simply their perception that as a man he would be that way?

    • Danielle – good questions! Dave wasn’t as hapless as the women around him assumed – in fact he really did not want the neighbours’ endless help. The portrait was of a man who was quite capable of bringing up his own children, only he wasn’t fussed about having a tidy house or policing the kids’ daily schedules as tightly as a mother might. I confess, once I start thinking in terms of gender it’s hard to shake it off! But then I like having a point of orientation when reading; it often opens a story up in interesting ways.

  4. Litlove,

    It’s quite sad isn’t it to be better known by others only after one’s death. But that’s so true though, since others only know the surface layers they see in us. I believe writing can bring out the deeper self, because others need to be quiet first before they can hear us (through our written words). Often verbal communications with two people wanting to speak at the same time, with temperaments, with our own feelings and emotions, are harder to manage than writing down what we want to say and then send it out. Yes, I’m one who can attest to the fact that, often I find texting is a better communication method than talking on the phone… for me anyway. Sorry, this is not what’s involved in this book, but just a ‘spin-off’ thought from reading your review. 😉

    • Spin-off thoughts extremely welcome! I find I am a great deal more comfortable having the time and space writing affords me to express myself. I’ll get by fine in a spoken conversation, but it’s more tiring because I try to stay self-aware to an extent I’m satisfied with. I completely agree with your statement about people needing to get quiet to hear us – yes!! There are some days when I wish everyone would pipe down a bit and listen better (especially days when my son and husband have conversations!). Those rogue emotions colour what we hear and how we say things more than we realise.

  5. So glad to read your review as I just got this from the library the other day! What really appeals to me of course is the journaling parts because I’ve always been into journaling and even though I’m always saying I’m an open-book well my journals are different from my blog as I imagine this is the same for most people. I’m looking forward to this!

    • Iliana, I think you’ll enjoy this one! And of course, yes, the journal parts are just designed for you. I think you’ll appreciate the exploration of the private self that only a diary reveals. Do let me know how you get on with it, won’t you? I’m so curious to know!

  6. writing can certainly bring out a “deeper self,” as Aarti says. It can also paint a one-sided picture that a conversation would veer towards correcting, but a monologue can keep pulling to one side until the picture of the private world is skewed. One of the virtues of a good marriage is to keep that conversation on a path that won’t collide with reality.

    • That’s true as well. The book is definitely suggesting that we air the private perceptions from time to time and give them a reality check. The better the marriage, the easier this is to do, I think.

  7. I must admit I loathe the cover. I went to a book shop recently and all the new arrivals had a similar cover. I don’t understand this laziness or am I the only one who finds these so super boring?
    It’s unfortunate as the book seems to have merits. I wouldn’t mind reading it a t all.

  8. Just saw the cover of Roman Elegy. Another faceless woman. At least the photo is much better, more interesting. I read that novel when it came out in German and it had a very sober cover.

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