Book Review: The Obituary Writer

obituary writerAbout halfway through reading this story of two women in different eras, I woke up panicked after having a realistic nightmare that still haunts me. My girlfriend started seeing someone else as I was forced to watch. We were all at a table and she just went to him as I sat there, stunned, not quite sure what I did to push her away.

Claire is a housewife and mother in the late 1960s who volunteered for the Kennedy campaign and was fascinated by anything Jackie O. She has a cushy life with an attractive husband who works at the Pentagon. She was fine with her life until the disappearance and murder of a neighborhood boy sends her into the equivalent of a mid-life crisis, forcing her to question her current life situation. Meeting Miles at a friend’s party brought further turbulence, and the fact that he listened to her thoughts and seemed to care about her feelings led her to stray.

Vivian is a well-known obituary writer for a small local paper in 1919. People flock from all over so she can beautifully sum up the essence of their loved ones.  She has a process that brings comfort to those most in need, usually involving toast and a variety of teas.  Working with grieving loved ones helps her come to terms with the fate of her married lover, who disappeared in a Los Angeles earthquake 13 years earlier. She holds out hope that he is still alive, suffering from a knock on the head that gave him amnesia, making him forget about his past life with her. Though she holds that glimmer of hope, writing obituaries is ultimately as beneficial for her as it is for the families with which she works.

On the day of Kennedy’s inauguration, Claire finds herself reluctantly at her mother-in-law, Birdy’s, house in Rhode Island to celebrate her 81st birthday. She is 26 weeks pregnant, going through the motions of her marriage and struggling with her wedding vows and the feelings for her now ex-lover. The tension between Claire and her husband Peter lead to some uncomfortable reading moments, with Claire falling out of love with her husband. She doesn’t want to be with her husband, but doesn’t want to carry the scarlet letter of divorce. Birdy’s heart attack is the first domino in a series of events that tests Claire’s skills as a wife, mother and a decent human being in general.

Vivian’s obituary writing/grief counseling is put to the ultimate test when someone she is very close with passes. This helps her put her search for David on the backburner, even if for a little bit. Her grief leads to ponder over her hope that David is still alive and she considers a new lover, even if just for a night.

Eventually, the two stories collide. Though done nicely, I sensed it coming shortly after my nightmare. I really enjoyed reading The Obituary Writer, by Ann Hood, even though I found it to be very predictable. I sensed what was coming, but I still managed to enjoy the ride.

The realism of the story really struck me. I spent a lot of time thinking about how seemingly great relationships can go downhill, with Claire falling for a new lover and Vivian being a married man’s lover. Claire’s reasons for her unhappiness were crystal clear, and Hood’s prose paints a portrait of how this came to be. With all of these thoughts and my recent nightmare swimming in my head, I decided to step up my game, buying flowers and tickets to Phantom of the Opera, which accidentally made their way to the recycling bin.