With John F. Kennedy's inauguration approaching, the country stirs with excitement. But even as she joins her suburban Virginia neighbors in wagering on the color of Jackie Kennedy's outfit, Claire contemplates the shambles of her loveless marriage. After being caught by her pompous husband in bed with a man who actually listens to her, she feels trapped and unhappy. It doesn't help that she is pregnant with a child she believes is her married lover's.
More than four decades earlier, Vivien has a different set of problems. Her own loving affair with an unhappily married man was cut short by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, in which he almost certainly died. But even 13 years later, Vivien cannot let go. Immersed in grief, she clings to the wild hope that David has amnesia and will one day surface and reclaim her. Meanwhile, though, she has developed an expertise as an obituary writer, combining unusual empathy with storytelling skill.
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Ann Hood is herself an empathetic storyteller, and she weaves these two narratives together skillfully enough in her pleasantly absorbing new novel, "The Obituary Writer." There are few surprises here — most astute readers will guess each twist a few pages before it arrives — but Hood's fluid style and depiction of women in the throes of difficult choices will keep them turning pages.
As Hood fans know, the author lost her 5-year-old daughter, Grace, to a rare form of strep in 2002, a catastrophe that inevitably haunts her work. After years of literary silence, Hood published both the bestselling novel, "The Knitting Circle" (2007), which transmuted her loss and recovery into fiction, and a memoir, "Comfort: A Journey Through Grief" (2008).
It seems fair to say that grief, in all its varieties, has become Hood's great theme. But she is equally interested in describing the remedies that can ease, if never entirely banish, the pain of loss. In "The Obituary Writer," she also writes sensitively about gender roles as well as a dilemma many of us face: whether to hold out for passionate, romantic love — or to settle, for practical or social reasons, for something less.
All of these issues confront Claire, at once the more contemporary and more old-fashioned of Hood's protagonists. Her grief is, first of all, for a life that seems lost: her own. Raised to believe that snaring a handsome, financially stable husband represented the apex of female accomplishment, Claire is, in society's terms, a winner. During a youthful interlude as a TWA "air hostess" (a job Hood, too, once held), she met Peter, an Ivy League graduate with "an air of importance." He tells her that he wants a wife who will make his life smooth and produce four children.
Despite a vague feeling of unease, Claire accepts his marriage proposal, agrees to a quick winter wedding and dutifully gives birth to a daughter. But by the time we meet her, a few years into the marriage, she already dreads sex with her husband. Peter's missionary-style lovemaking, it turns out, is as conventional and unsatisfying as everything else about him. "Why was it that as soon as he finished, she began to feel stirrings?" Hood writes. Out of bed, too, Claire has become bored and restless. Two years before the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan's feminist manifesto, "The Feminine Mystique," she is experiencing the proverbial "problem that has no name" — and is ripe for the temporary relief of an affair. What she really needs, though, is the personal equivalent of Kennedy's New Frontier.
Vivien, too, is leading a cloistered life, made tolerable by friendship, her genuine empathy for other mourners and a sense of vocation as an obituary writer. But when and how will she relinquish her ethereal hopes of a reunion with David in favor of an earthier and more available lover? And how will her choices, echoing down through the decades, affect Claire?
As these two female-centered narratives gradually converge, there will be other losses, other regrets. Hood begins each section of "The Obituary Writer" with an epigraph drawn from Emily Post's 1922 manual, "Etiquette." Its precise prescriptions — such as the exhortation to take mourners "a very little food … on a tray" — seem at first to provide an ironic counterpoint to the unruly chaos of grief.
But after a while, we sense that Post, for all her reserve, has gotten it mostly right. Vivien finds that light food does indeed comfort those in grief. Post writes that "distress makes [mourners] unstrung," and Vivien acknowledges that grief is "unrelenting and illogical." Finally, when Post advises that after a year, a mourner "is free to put on colors and make happier plans," we sense that brighter days for Claire lie ahead. It is a tribute to Hood's narrative gifts that, as her embattled heroine strides into her future, we find ourselves eager to accompany her.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
"The Obituary Writer"
By Ann Hood, W.W. Norton, 292 pages, $26.95