1. Many of the characters in the novel keep substantial secrets from one another for a variety of reasons. Whose do you think is the most damaging, and why?
2. In the year following the September 11th attacks, Kate’s fears grew to a point where any danger seemed possible, and she struggled with anxiety over her family’s safety. Do you think that has diminished or not in the U.S., a decade later?
3. Kate conceals her anxiety because she is afraid it will make her seem less strong and competent. Do you think there is still a stigma about anxiety and depression, 15 years later?
4. Why do you think Elizabeth never confided in Kate (and others) about her sister and about how important her work was to her, even though Kate herself was passionate about her work?
5. The epigraph is an excerpt of an essay by Wallace Stegner about his mother, “Letter Much Too Late,” written sixty years after she’d died, when Stegner was 80.
Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to…. You are at once a lasting presence and an unhealed wound.
How does this relate to THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D., and do you think it applies to more than one character?
6. Do you think the difference between being a stay-at-home mom or a mother with a career outside the home still creates barriers between women? Do you think if women show too much passion for their work they can be perceived as less motherly?
7. When Elizabeth is in high school, she concludes, “Smile, and the world likes you more.” Do you think that is true?
8. Elizabeth did not start out as a socially dexterous person likely to be the hub of a neighborhood mom’s group. To what extent do you think people can reinvent themselves from introvert to an extrovert?
9. Early in the novel, Kate wonders about what it would be like if she wandered into her husband’s home office some night to read silently while he worked — as they used to, earlier in marriage — instead of retreating to her own spot in the living room. “It was a gift, solitude. But solitude with another person, that was an art.” Do you agree? Do you think this becomes easier or harder after years of marriage?
10. Which of the two women’s storylines were you most interested in reading, and resonated with you most?
11. What was your interpretation of Elizabeth’s feelings for Kate? Of Kate’s for Elizabeth?
12. If someone is shouldering a burden that would cause their family pain, do you think dealing with it privately is the most giving or the most selfish thing? Is it possible to be both at once?
13. What kinds of things do you see — or imagine — people commonly conceal when crafting their public face?
14. Do you believe the most formative developments in your life — professionally and personally — have happened by choice, coincidence, or a combination of both?
15. Do you consider your life well balanced right now? Do you think those closest to you would be surprised by the way you’d answer that question?