Book Review: The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood is a quiet exploration of womanhood within the confines of damaged relationships. Readers are rocked between eras as they learn about love and grief throughout the novel’s parallel plotlines, which interchange between chapters.

In 1919, Vivien is a “spinster” mistress who believes that her married lover, David, suffered from amnesia after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She is unable to move on until she uncovers his fate, which colors every decision in her life. She uses her grief to fuel her unconventional obituary writing that is renowned for “her gift for bringing the dead to life.”

In 1961, Claire is a dutiful housewife who realizes that her routine-based marriage is stagnant and unfulfilling; that she’s falling out of love with her husband, Peter; and that she is attracted to one of her married neighbors. She cheats on her husband, learns that she’s pregnant, and spends the rest of the book trying to make amends while being obsessed about Jackie Kennedy and the impending Presidential inauguration.

But the story is more about loss than cheating women. Without integrating Kübler-Ross’s five stages, Hood explores what should be said and done to help the bereaved and while grieving. Hood’s writing is honest and blunt. For example, she splatters descriptions of grief’s effects throughout the story.

Grief makes people guilty. Guilty for being five minutes late, for taking the wrong streetcar, for ignoring a cough or sleeping too soundly. Guilt and grief went hand in hand (32).

Grief paralyzed you…. It prevented you from getting out of bed, from moving at all. It prevented you from even taking a few steps forward (101).

The grief-stricken want to hear the names of those they’ve lost. To not say the name out loud denies that person’s existence. People seeking to comfort mourners often err this way. They lower their eyes at the sound of the dead’s name. They refuse to utter it themselves (103).

To fight off these side-effects, the novel mentions the concept of comfort food, be it the dinner parties Claire attends or Vivien’s use of tea, water, wine, broth, toast, cheese and crackers, cookies, or fruit. Vivien also believes that the proper way to show support to loved ones is to maintain their household for them instead of asking to help.

Hood is also masterful at nestling readers inside each woman’s mind in order to experience other characters through emotional lenses. She doesn’t allow readers to make their own decisions about the lovers and husbands; they hate as the women hate, love as they love, and fear for each fleeting encounter. Hood also adeptly represents various aspects of womanhood: being a mother, an aunt-type figure, a wife, a cheating wife, a mistress, a best friend, and a daughter.

In addition, Vivien and Claire are excellent foils for each other—both “other women” but for different reasons with different lifestyles. Vivien is strong and financially independent; she had a secure life alone before and after David with no social stress to get married. Claire is uncertain, weak, and apologetic; her life is tied to her family, partially due to society’s condemnation of wayward women. The main similarity between the two women is their emotional insecurity, both over the loss of a lover.

Although Hood displays excellent research of the separate eras—such as habits, specific brand items, and culture—the women seem to clash with the time-frames’ expectations. Vivien in 1919 seems to have more freedom without consequences than Claire in 1961. But what changed between the freedom of the Roaring ’20s and the dependency of the ’60s? It’s doubtful that Vivien realistically has that much freedom coming out of the Victorian era. And Claire lives in a society past 1940 and WWII when women became more involved with society and industry. Did society backtrack so much in 20 years? Culture is about to shift into an era of sexual freedom and equality, yet Claire is embarrassed from having an orgasm with her husband. Hood tries to explain this with a lengthy rundown of lessons Claire learned from her mother.

Claire came from a generation of women who did not question things. A generation raised by women who didn’t question. Before her mother died… she’d taught Claire the things she believed a woman needed to know: always wear a hat to keep the sun off your face so you don’t get wrinkles; moisturize every day; never to go bed with your makeup on; … a man likes soft hands; always get up before your husband so you can do your own morning routine in private, make yourself look pretty, and have his breakfast ready when he wakes up; keep up on current events; agree with your husband’s opinion, even if you think he’s a horse’s ass for believing that; … know how to sew a hem, darn a sock, replace a button—those skills will make you indispensable; … never refuse your husband’s sexual desires; … and Claire, honey, love goes out the window when there’s no money (181).

The list deftly illustrates the position that women were in during the early ’60s: they existed to look pretty for men, cook for men, and live for and submit to their men. Without question. Claire’s marital problems occur because she begins to ask questions and make no exceptions for her husband’s flaws. Only her guilt makes her silently acquiesce to him by way of apology instead of leaving.

Although these women are foils living in different eras, their connection is revealed toward the end of the story, which provides an intriguing moment of bonding and recognition. It also makes readers satisfied after encountering subtle hints and dramatic irony. As one story ends and another begins a new stage, the closure between the characters and the readers is complete—all questions are answered after a gentle goodbye, and Hood ends the novel there.

Filed under: Book Review, Nicole Bartley, Prose