On the day John F. Kennedy is inaugurated, Claire, an uncompromising young wife and mother obsessed with the glamour of Jackie O, struggles over the decision of whether to stay in a loveless marriage or follow the man she loves and whose baby she may be carrying. Decades earlier, in 1919, Vivien Lowe, an obituary writer, is searching for her lover who disappeared in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. By telling the stories of the dead, Vivien not only helps others cope with their grief but also begins to understand the devastation of her own terrible loss. The surprising connection between Claire and Vivien will change the life of one of them in unexpected and extraordinary ways. Part literary mystery and part love story, The Obituary Writer examines expectations of marriage and love, the roles of wives and mothers, and the emotions of grief, regret, and hope.
The construct of an obituary seems fairly straightforward: Name, birthdate, death date, spouse name, surviving family, military history, employment, etc. . . etc. The generic fashion in which an obituary neatly encloses a person’s life into a few short paragraphs leaves many to wonder, who was this person, really and truly? The span of a life is much more interesting than just the basic vitals and statistics. It has much more depth and character than the company one was employed by, or the fact that they may or may not have had 15 grandchildren. In the novel The Obituary Writer, Ann Hood allows the reader a unique insight into the world of obituary writing, using two very separate and distinct women in differing eras to show that a person cannot be summed up in a singular way. Instead the multi-faceted nature of a human life is much more complex, and deserves to be expressed in such a way as to give a more accurate impression of the deceased beyond the basic, nonspecific ramblings of modern day obituaries. In the end, the connection between the two will allow them both to find that place of release from grief and guilt that they have carried upon their shoulders like weights.
In 1906, Vivien is the happiest she has ever been. She has a handsome and wealthy lover, David, whose main purpose in life is to shower her in lavish gifts and expressions his undying love for her. However, that was all about to change. Soon after leaving for work, David goes missing in the Great San Francisco Earthquake. Distraught, Vivien searches the city, looking for any trace of him, to no avail. Fast forward 13 years, the reader finds a mournful and still grieving Vivian working as an obituary writer for the local newspaper. Her obituaries have taken on quite the following, and her talent for conveying the life of the person, not just their statistics, has proved rather profitable. Her own grief being masked by the grief of others, Vivien never completely gives up on finding David, who by this point she assumes has amnesia and is living another life. Fate, in the form of a grief-stricken young woman, was about to run her over like a freight car, leaving her to question everything she thought she knew, including her time with David.
Leap ahead to the tumultuous and rapidly changing 1960’s. Claire is the quintessential housewife and mother trying to emulate the perceived perfection that was the Camelot Kennedy Era. It’s inauguration day, and while all of the other ladies are taking bets as to the color and print of Jackie O’s dress, Claire is having an internal struggle with her conscience. Should she stay in a somewhat loveless marriage, or run away with her lover, who could quite possibly be the father of the child she is carrying? As the events of the day unfold, a tragic event will either shatter her marriage or bring them closer together, but at what cost? Claire’s devotion and loyalty to her husband is tested, leaving her with more questions than answers. While all along, her own betrayal of her wedding vows eats away at her, threatening to drive her mad.
Throughout the novel, the theme of feeling trapped runs rampant. In the case of Vivien, she feels as though she is trapped in the same spot, running in circles, ever since the Great Quake. For her, the chapter of David is never really closed until she is able to confirm without a doubt that he has passed on. Claire, too, carries the sensation of being trapped. . .trapped in a unhappy marriage, trapped by guilt over her affair, trapped in the cookie cutter mold of the conventional 1960’s domestic goddess. Both ladies are struggling to break free, but find that they are so paralyzed by their own fears of inadequacy and grief that moving past their hurdles in life seems impossible. Impossible, that is, until they find that they share a connection that neither would have imagined. ( I am purposely dancing around the connection, by the way, to encourage you to read the novel to find out what it is!) Ann Hood uses this connection to wrap these essentially individual short stories together, but in my opinion, it came a bit too late. I think had the reader been trusted with a little more information regarding the connection, it would have made this fluid, easy to read novel a lot more deep and meaningful. Other than that minor flaw, I enjoyed this book. It gives a unique perspective on what it truly meant to be a woman in two very differing and tumultuous times in American history. I give this book 3 ½ stars.