~Jack Kennedy has just been elected president. Claire is a young mother, pregnant with her second child. She's in a flawed marriage and finds love with a married man. Her husband catches them in the act and the marriage struggles along, along with the pregnancy, and the upcoming inauguration.
~Just before the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, young Vivien falls in love with a dashing young attorney named David. They spend blissful days together until he departs the morning of the earthquake, never to be seen again. For thirteen years, Claire grieves and never stops looking for him. She simultaneously becomes an obituary writer, poetic and skilled, perhaps because she understands grief and grieving so well.
Ann Hood's novel alternates between their stories, moving them forward, intertwining their themes and their conclusions.
The book is moving and sad and wonderful and filled with truths and historic moments. When each woman's vignette ended, I couldn't wait to see how her next one started, but then there was the alternate story, tugging me forward. This was my first Ann Hood, and now I want to go back and read them all, from the beginning.
That being said, here are the Top Ten Things That Are Great About "The Obituary Writer."
10. It captures the 60s masterfully, right down to the hors d'oeuvres served at the neighborhood couple's dinners (one neighbor can artfully spread cheese whiz on a cracker just so). You'll happily flee to some nouvelle cuisine and perhaps remember what was considered elegant back then.
9. It reminded me of the feeling of hope that gripped the nation when Kennedy took office, and America's love for Jackie and the two children. Both Claire and her lover work on the campaign, and both can recite his entire acceptance speech.
8. Great historical moments from the San Francisco Earthquake, which devastated the city, spread fires ad disease, and broke so many lives. Vivien tells of how people went by the fountain every day, searching for loved ones who had vanished that fateful morning.
7. Hood understands grief. She understands how it never goes away, but lingers and changes shape and changes the lives of those who grieve. She explores it beautifully and painfully and in a very real way.
6. A reminder of the flu epidemics that wiped out so many after the turn of the century. At one point Vivien and her friend ponder that someday a mold they have discovered in Europe might cure some of these ailments.
5. The Napa Valley... back before it became trendy and shiny and corporate and bigger than life. These were the early winery years, when local families gathered at picnic tables at night, sharing food and wine and conversation while the children chased fireflies.
4. Two tender love stories that play with quirks in a relationship and things that bond people together. Claire loves how her lover cocks his head and listens to her, as if he is interested. Vivien's love story is almost a fairytale, set in the City by the Bay.
3. Hood clearly knows how difficult it is travelling, pregnant, with an unhappy toddler whose favorite toy has been left behind. Add a blizzard and you'll be glad you're not there.
2. Claire's struggle to be a good and obedient wife to a husband who is probably a decent enough guy, with his own view of what his wife should be. Claire is truly a character of the time, and let's acknowledge "We've come a long way, baby."
1. The ambiguity of the ending. Do we find love? Peace? Comfort? Happiness? More grief? All things worth pondering.