The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

WHY MEMORABLE:  This books stays with you.  Why?  That’s what I asked myself en route to Nichole Bernier’s book talk at Politics & Prose in Washington, DC, to celebrate the paperback release of her compelling debut novel (it’s where she crafted some of it, in the bookstore’s atmospheric café).  I had read the novel six months ago when the hardback was published, but wanted to re-read it so it would be fresh in my mind, but it wasn’t until I met someone on line for the signing, who told me it could be “the best book I’ve ever read,” that my lens would be why it was so powerful and not forgettable, like so many others.

I was drawn to the novel because it was inspired by a true story:  the author lost a friend on the first plane that hit the Twin Towers on 9/11.  This is not a spoiler, since the reader learns from the opening pages that Kate’s friend Elizabeth has died – although the cause is not due to terrorism – yet Kate’s character is still grappling with, and concealing, rather intense feelings of anxiety long after 9/11, as the novel takes place during the summer of 2002.

I was also attracted to this book because Nichole Bernier is the mother of 5 children.  When did she have time to write?  After learning it took her 7 years and plenty of drafts, including first creating hundreds of pages of Elizabeth’s journals so she could really get to know her character, and then deleting some 80%, you can’t help but be impressed by the author’s persistence and passion, which translated into Elizabeth’s authentic, haunting, and memorable voice.  If you like a good mystery, you’ll want to know why Elizabeth left her intimate journals to a playgroup friend and not to her husband Dave.

The pacing of the story appropriately intensifies once you learn of Elizabeth’s early years (she kept journals for decades).  The reader, like Kate, becomes fascinated by how the real Elizabeth concealed herself in her relationships. Concealment is a powerful theme that runs throughout the book, with provocative, thoughtful reflections about hiding truths and feelings in our friendships, relationships, marriages:

It occurred to her that there could be in most relationships two distinct tracks of conversation taking place at any given time:  what people actually discussed about their lives, and what people did not discuss but was very much on their minds.

Told against the healing backdrop of a lovely summer island reminiscent of Martha’s Vineyard, other compelling themes include the sacrifices of motherhood; suburban loneliness; solitude; and loss, grief, and the fragility of life.  The island’s spirit, contrasted by elusive feelings of danger, is lovingly expressed in images of wild roses, wild spaces, and sweet trees, but it is the search for understanding “invisible wishing” that may linger most for you.

Happy Reading, Lorraine

Nichole Bernier at Politics & Prose

Nichole Bernier, Politics & Prose, March 16, 2013

 

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The Last Summer 2

The Last SummerWHY READ:  If you want to be transported back to a time and place much like Downton Abbey – gorgeous English countryside, a magnificent estate, the end of the Edwardian era just before Britain enters WWI, along with the British mores and social class tensions of upstairs-downstairs relationships – then you should love this book.  If you seek  simple, beautiful prose and a compelling female voice, you will also find this a most satisfying reading experience.

Deyning Park, a Georgian classical-style country house that evokes grace and elegance amidst a bucolic landscape, is where The Last Summer takes place.  It’s central to the conflict in the story, much beloved and fought for.  Told in the evocative female voice of Clarissa, who lives at Deyning Park along with her three brothers, Mama and Papa, and the servants and one of their sons, it’s Clarissa’s heart and enduring romance with Tom and Deyning Park that touches us.

The elegant prose deserves attention, especially since this is Kinghorn’s debut novel.  It seems to take so much longer for US readers to learn about wonderful UK books and authors.  I only stumbled on this book because Barnes & Noble’s smartly marketed it as part of their “Downton Abbey Collection.”   I found this such a pleasurable read, wanting to share it, that I came up with the idea of developing this blog.  I’m tired of always seeing the same authors on the bestseller lists when so many others are crafting novels that deserve knowing.   It’s my hope that this little blog will help spread the word.

See if you like the way the prose envelops you from the opening sentences:

“I was almost seventeen when the spell of my childhood was broken.  There was no sudden jolt, no immediate awakening and no alteration, as far as I’m aware, in the earth’s axis that day.  But the vibration of change was upon us, and I sensed a shift:  a realignment of my trajectory.  It was the beginning of summer and unbeknown to any of us then, the end of a belle époque.

If I close my eyes I can still smell the day:  the roses beyond the open casement doors; the lavender in the parterre as I ran through; and grass, lambert green, newly mown.  I can feel the rain on my face; hear my voice as it once was…”

There are 433 pages of lovely prose, cozy storytelling but this is by no means a cozy story.  It’s a heartbreaking story of love and loss spanning nearly two decades.  Kinghorn’s interview at the end of the book confirms that a great deal of research went into writing about the impact of WWI, but it is her personal style of writing that makes the story feel so real and intimate, as if you have lived this story with two close friends named Clarissa and Tom.

You will have to wait until January 2014 for Kinghorn’s 2nd novel to make its way to the US, The Memory of Lost Senses.  In the meantime, if you treat yourself to The Last  Summer and enjoy it, please share it with your friends and post a comment to me too.  I promise to share your supportive comments with Judith Kinghorn.

Happy Reading, Lorraine

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