A couple of friends highly recommended The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood, so I picked it up at the Strand on a trip to NY this past winter.
The Obituary Writer is about two women separated by 40 years: Vivien, a twentysomething in San Francisco whose lover disappeared during the devastating earthquake in 1906, and Claire, a housewife in Arlington, VA on the eve of President Kennedy’s inauguration. Both women have suffered devastating losses – Claire has had an affair and fallen in love with a man who is not her husband, and is now carrying a baby whose paternity is unclear. Claire and her husband (who discovered the affair and is trying to get past it) travel to Providence, RI for his mother’s 80th birthday, a trip which Claire must endure despite her deep ambivalence toward her husband. Meanwhile, the Vivien subplot follows her attempts to find her own missing beloved while she writes obituaries of people she has never met.
The theme unifying these two distinct but ultimately related subplots is grief: grief for the death of the dream of true love; grief for the loss of children; and grief for the death of hope. Vivien and Claire live very much inside their minds. They keep their swirling, intensely felt thoughts to themselves while putting on facades to satisfy others. Yet they are both achingly, vibrantly yearning for happiness and the passion they have each felt at different times. The settings – turn of the century San Francisco and early 60s East Coast – provide a compelling backdrop for the book, which is full of period detail about what it was like to be a woman in those time periods. I particularly liked the depiction of 60s housewives and all of the ways in which they were supposed to please (and serve) their husbands. I also liked the settings – all places I’ve lived (San Francisco, Washington DC and Providence, RI).
I enjoyed The Obituary Writer quite a bit, but I can’t say that I loved it. I sympathized with Claire, but I didn’t find her particularly compelling as a woman. Beyond her obsession with the Kennedys, it was hard to see what she was passionate about other than the man she had an affair with. Her marriage was unfulfilling, yes, but she wasn’t exactly crackling with personality. Vivien was more interesting, but her inability to let go the dream of finding her love after 13 years made her less appealing. There were a few contrived plot twists – timing that was too convenient, messy situations that were too neatly wrapped up – that distracted me from the overall story.
I like Ann Hood’s writing, and I enjoyed The Obituary Writer more than the other Ann Hood book I have read – The Red Thread. This one was worth reading, despite a few flaws.
Depressing-o-meter: 7.5 out of 10