Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood

I met Ann Hood back in 1989 at an American Booksellers Association Convention.  Her line was not long, but the novel she signed seemed intriguing.  I spoke with her for a few minutes and she seemed charming and enthusiastic about the novel.  I really liked it, but it did not overwhelm me.  A couple of years later, she came out with another, and again, I was not overly impressed.  I stopped following her, until a friend mentioned The Obituary Writer published in 2013.  I decided to take another look, which now has led me to a second read of that first novel.

Ann Hood lives in Providence, Rhode Island. She is the author of eight novels, two memoirs, including Comfort:  A Journey Through Grief, which was a New York Times' Editors' Choice and named one of the top ten non-fiction books of 2008; and a collection of short stories, An Ornithologist's Guide to Life.  She is a regular columnist for the New York Times, her stories and essays have also appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other publications.  She has won two Pushcart Prizes, a Best American Spiritual Writing award, a Best Food Writing award, and The Paul Bowles Prize for Short Fiction.

The novel opens on the day in 1961 when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president.  Claire is a young wife and mother, and she is struggling with her loveless marriage.  She is married to Peter, who works at the Pentagon.  Claire has had an affair, and may be carrying her lover’s child.  Vivien Lowe, an obituary writer in San Francisco in 1919, searches for her lover, who disappeared in the Earthquake of 1906.  These women have a surprising connection.

The book alternates chapters between Claire and Vivien, and Ann Hood kept me entranced wondering about that connection not apparent until the final pages.

Claire seems a character out of the TV series, Mad Men.  She smokes and drinks with abandon, even when she knows she is pregnant.  Those were certainly different times.  Hood writes, “If Claire had to look back and decide why she had the affair in the first place, she would point to the missing boy.  This was in mid-June, during those first humid days when the air in Virginia hangs thick.  School was coming to an end, and from her kitchen window Claire could see the bus stop at the corner and the neighborhood children […] Their school bags dragged along the sidewalk; their catcher’s mitts drooped.  Jump ropes trailed behind a small group of girls, as if even they were too hot. // […] Claire smiled.  Her hands in the yellow rubber gloves dipped into the soapy dishwater as if on automatic.  Wash.  Rinse.  Set in the drainer to dry.  Repeat.  The kitchen smelled of the chocolate cake cooling on the sill in front of her.  And faintly of her cigarette smoke, and the onions she’d fried and added to the meatloaf.  Upstairs, Kathy napped, clutching her favorite stuffed animal, Mimi, a worn and frayed rabbit.” (13) 
Ann Hood when I met her

Vivien on the other hand, is single and writes obituaries for friends and neighbors.  Hood writes, “The obituary writer, Vivien Lowe, usually did not know her clients.  [… But] They were all very much like Mrs. Marjorie Benton, who sat across from her on the small deep purple loveseat.  It was a rainy March afternoon in the town of Napa, California, in 1919. […] The office looked like a sitting room, with its Victorian furniture salvaged from the old apartment in San Francisco, the loveseat and chairs and ornate, beaded lamps. The obituary writer lived above her office, in one large room that looked down on Napa’s main street.  […] Even though did not know it, Vivien knew that grieving people needed food and something to quench their thirst.  So she always put out a small plate of cheese and crackers, or cookies, or fruit.  She always offered her clients a drink.  Cool water, hot tea, even a glass of wine” (28-29).

An amusing chapter about midway, recounts a woman’s duty to her husband.  I remember those days, the Kennedy inauguration, stay-at-home moms were the norm, my mother washing dishes in the sink. Ann Hood, in The Obituary Writer, paints a vivid portrait of those times, and I am glad I have reconnected with her work.  5 stars

--Chiron, 6/2/14

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