In The Obituary Writer, Ann Hood tells the story of two women, Vivien and Claire, who are separated by forty-one years and a continent. They are very different, Vivien is single, mourning a man she lost in the San Francisco earthquake, refusing to believe he is dead, and convinced that he is out there somewhere suffering from amnesia. Claire is married, pregnant and unhappy in her marriage.
In 1919 California, Vivien Lowe is the obituary writer of the title, a woman who talks to people who are grieving and writes obituaries. Her obituaries are not a recitation of dates, jobs and relatives, it is a story of their life that captures them as they are in the hearts of those they love. She is so good at helping people with their grief because she understands grief herself, far too well.
In 1960 Rhode Island, Claire is thrilled with the Kennedy victory and somewhat infatuated with Jackie’s style and presence. She is proud of volunteering for his campaign, even though some of that was a cover for an affair she had with a neighbor. Her husband caught them and doubts the paternity of the child she is carrying.
There is a man who is clearly in love with Vivien. His name is Sebastien, an immigrant from Italy who persists in spite of her rejection. He is friends with Lotte, Vivien’s best friend, so it’s not like he’s a stalker. Well, maybe a little, he goes to the library every Friday because that’s when Vivien goes. But Vivien is still hoping that by some miracle David is still alive somewhere. When a news story mentions an amnesiac man in Colorado who had the key for the hotel where they had their first dinner, her hopes come to life.
For Claire, she has given up her lover, but is dissatisfied and unhappy. She knows Peter has not forgiven her, will likely never forgive her, and does she really care? Does she want to save her marriage? She certainly does not want to lose her daughter Kathy and knows that she has little standing. She’s looking forward eagerly to the inauguration and is irritated that Peter is insisting on going to her mother’s 80th birthday on that same day.
Things progress, there is some laughter and a lot of sorrow and lessons are learned. It is an emotionally rich and loving book. I found myself much more interested in Vivien, a strong personality with a love of poetry. I love how she thought about the obituaries and how she could find perfect snatches of poetry that comforted those left behind. Claire was more frustrating, a woman who wants more from her life, but seems to not know how to ask for it or go for it.
I enjoyed The Obituary Writer. It succeeded in capturing my interest and my emotions. I particularly loved Vivien’s story. I think it is because she’s a more interesting woman with more agency, despite her spending years in an emotional limbo. Claire is a bit frustrating, even though it is a bit unreasonable to expect her to make huge life-changing decisions while six months pregnant. Ann Hood does a good job of evoking the claustrophobic life of upper middle class suburbia in the Sixties.
I would like it better if the stories did not feel so unbalanced. Vivian’s seems so much larger than Claire’s and then there is the missing boy, a child snatched and murdered at the beginning, his killer arrested near the end. Other than bookending the story, it serves no purpose. Claire thinks that it was the disappearance that led to her affair, but Hood does not make the case for it in the story. Nonetheless, it’s a good story and well done.