The Obituary Writer’s Sad Story
A few days ago I wrote about my challenges writing book reviews, about how I shy away from criticizing a book in a written review. In exploring whether or not it’s wrong or inappropriate to write negative reviews, I referred to what some other writers recently had to say about this in the New York Times, and I determined, along with writer Francine Prose and others, that it’s important to be honest and ok to be critical.
So I’m going to just plunge right in here: Ann Hood’s recent novel The Obituary Writer was a great disappointment.
I discovered the writer Ann Hood in college, when I wrote about several of her novels in a paper about how feminist politics manifested itself in the fiction of various contemporary women novelists (there were other, stronger, entries as well in the paper: Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy for example). I greatly enjoyed her work at that time, but then it began to feel too fluffy to me, and a bit off (an icky father/daughter relationship), so she disappeared from my radar for a while.
In 2002, a truly tragic thing happened to Hood when her five year old daughter died of an antibiotic-resistant strain of strep. One can only dimly imagine the pain of such a thing. In 2008, Hood published a memoir about this experience. The book, called Comfort, was well-reviewed and chosen as a book of the year by the New York Times. I could not bring myself to read it.
Since then, Hood has published several more books, and I eagerly returned to reading her work with her newest novel, The Obituary Writer. The book interweaves the stories of two women, Claire, a 1960s housewife in an unsatisfactory marriage, and the titular obituary writer, Vivien, who lives in Napa Valley in 1919 and still mourns the loss of her lover in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.Eventually the reader will discover how these two women are connected.
Vivien came to her vocation by accident and has turned writing obituaries into an art form. Her home welcomes a steady stream of the grieving who long for Vivien to hear their stories of loss and memorialize their loved ones in writing. Vivien understands their grief, as she herself is still in mourning. Nonetheless, I found it odd that an obituary writer should be such a local celebrity, and that the first thought of those experiencing the loss of a loved one would be to rush off to Vivien’s home to tell their story.
Claire, meanwhile, is ensconced in 1961, just as JFK is about to take office, and the descriptions of her life read like a lesson in brand marketing. Every product, appliance, or other item associated with this period in suburban life has a cameo, and we are treated to frequent scenes of pregnant Claire smoking, swilling scotch, and idolizing Jackie Kennedy. I’m not sure which came first, this book or “Mad Men,” but in the TV version of the early 60s we appreciate the verisimilitude; here it reads like stereotype. The author is relying on her scene-setting to give the story depth, while she leaves her characters flat and superficial.
There are also a number of children who die in this book, from the neighborhood boy who is kidnapped in the opening scene to a young girl who dies of influenza. It is clear that Hood is still working through her grief here.
In the end, I don’t feel particularly connected to either Claire or Vivien, nor do I find that, by telling the stories side by side, either story enlightens the other. I do feel rather refreshed, though, at having told you what I really think about this book!