The Obituary Writer: book review

obituary writer

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood. Publisher: W.W. Norton (March 5, 2013). Historical fiction/ literary fiction. Hardcover. 292 pages. ISBN: 978-0-393-08142-8.

Ann Hood authored Comfort, one of the most poignant, honest memoirs I’ve read. It detailed the grieving process after her 5-year-old daughter died from a virulent form of strep throat. Once I started reading The Obituary Writer I recognized elements of Comfort within the pages of this captivating, melancholy novel.

Two things immediately attracted me to this novel: the title and the cover. Arguably in book publishing, besides social networking, these are important elements for marketing. A simple title that tempts the reader because who doesn’t love to read those exquisite New York Times Obituaries from time to time? Naturally one wonders who writes them. Then there’s this lovely sepia cover. A woman– clearly in the 1920s with her bob hairstyle and pretty white dress with floral embellishments at the hem– sitting deep in thought at her desk, pen in hand.

A woman who lost her lover in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 works as an obituary writer in Napa Valley. In many ways Vivian’s life remains stagnant because she refuses to believe that David may have perished more than a decade ago. She obsessively researches amnesia and keeps a scrapbook about various cases and reports. In other ways she’s unconsciously or subconsciously managed to utilize her experience to assist others in their grief as an obituary writer. She’s become renowned nationwide for her adept obituaries. Vivian provides simple comforts to the grieving: tea; some toast or pound cake; and a generous ear.

“Grief made people awkward. It made them afraid and hesitant. But an obituary writer could not be awkward or tentative. An obituary writer had to be assertive and honest, kind and insightful.”

As John F. Kennedy prepares to take office in 1961 a woman in Virginia feels the strains in her suburban marriage. Claire met her husband Peter while working as a stewardess their first date atop the Eiffel Tower. Now she’s caring for her toddler, cooking meatloaf and contemplating recipes. Like many women at this time, she’s obsessed with Jackie Kennedy.

Vivian’s storyline interested me more than Claire’s perhaps because she’s single although she was involved with a married man and planned to marry him. Vivian seemed more independent than Claire from the outset. I preferred her style. Less domestic. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that she postponed certain life decisions while waiting for her love to return from the embers of the earthquake. Claire isn’t that appealing until she challenges her husband’s expectations. I also enjoyed the vivid descriptions of her Kennedy obsession. Particularly as she and her neighbors made bets as to what Jackie Kennedy would wear to the inauguration and to the inaugural balls.

As the novel progresses we understand what motivates Vivian and Claire. Vivian has this major love and a major loss which compels her to become an obituary writer enabling her to accomplish so much for others through her carefully chosen words. Claire volunteers for the Kennedy campaign and dissatisfied with her husband, pursues an affair with another man. Her husband walks in on them one afternoon. This shatters their marriage but divorce isn’t a possibility at this time particularly when Claire finds out she’s pregnant. Terribly conflicted, this leads to a catastrophic event and a clear bond between Claire and Vivian. The Obituary Writer engrosses you in these women’s lives from page one.

–review by Amy Steele

RATING: BUY [or request immediately]

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.

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