Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood

I'd heard of Ann Hood before I read The Obituary Writer, but only in that passing way that makes your ears perk up at a remembered name, but I had no idea what she'd written. 

Until my book club swooped in, yet again, with a wild card. I gave this novel absolutely zero attention until the book club served it up to me. 

The result? Pleasantly surprised! 

From Goodreads:
On the day John F. Kennedy is inaugurated, Claire, a young wife and mother obsessed with the glamour of Jackie, struggles over the decision of whether to stay in a loveless but secure marriage or to 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 these two women will change Claire s life 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.
I really enjoyed the atmosphere in this book. When our book club met, Trish and I both said that parts of this one -- the story line containing Claire in the 1960s -- was like stepping into an episode of Mad Men. Claire reminded me a lot of Betty Draper. Less dramatic, surely. Fewer ridiculous twists. But the overall sense of discontentment and longing, the internal struggle with whether to stay or go, really intrigued me. 

I often do find myself drawn to books and films and television shows that deal with the role of the wife. Especially from bygone eras and the feelings of discontentment that seemed to accompany a woman's limited choices. It might seem like a downer, but overall I find it interesting. The Hours comes to mind, in particular. I was reminded of Mrs. Brown's story from that novel. 

But back to The Obituary Writer...

The story line involving Vivien Lowe was much more problematic. It was still a pleasure to read with gorgeous writing and Vivien was a multi-faceted character, but there were moments that made me lift an eyebrow. Jarring things that weren't terribly believable that took me out of the narrative. For instance, Vivien is an obituary writer. She can sit with a grieving person, have a discussion of their lost loved one, and write a pitch-perfect obituary that really captures the person's essence. The grief-stricken seek her out to do this for them. 

How the hell do you make a living doing that? It was clear that Vivien led a meager, small life. But really??? I found that totally unbelievable and it was never explained.  

There were also moments (two specifically), that the Claire and Vivien's names got transposed in the text. In a section about Claire, she was referred to as Vivien, and vice versa.  Ummm, editor? Every one of us in the club caught that, but the writer and editor didn't??? Or maybe it was on purpose. But if it was done on purpose it wasn't terribly effective. Just confusing. And weird. 

At this point you're wondering if I really liked the book. And the answer is that I really did. Despite the nagging issues, this one, on a scale of one to five stars, would probably get a three. It was a nice, pleasant, quick, atmospheric, worthwhile read. Did it totally blow my knickers up? No. But I'm glad the book club prompted me to read it. 

Have you read any of Ann Hood's fiction? What did you think? 

Pub. Date: March 2013 
Publisher: W.W. Norton
Format: E-book
ISBN-13: 9780393081428
Source: Purchased by moi!

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