About five years ago, when I was going through a Very Bad Time, my wonderful friend Mary gave me Ann Hood’s memoir Comfort (in which Ms. Hood very graciously penned a note for me). Comfort‘s chapters deal with the experience of grief; Ms. Hood’s five-year-old daughter died from a virulent form of strep in 2002. The book is gut-wrenching, and the first chapter is the best, truest writing on grief that I’ve ever read.
That grief clearly informs The Obituary Writer, Ms. Hood’s novel that’s out this year. The novel gives us two stories in parallel. We follow Vivien in 1919 San Francisco (and environs) as she comes to grips with the disappearance of her lover in the earthquake of 1906, and Claire in 1960 Virginia, feeling trapped in a loveless marriage and catapulted suddenly into an affair. Their lives intersect, of course, but the contrast between the two women is fascinating. How did women shape their lives when their roles were so constricted, so defined?
I found as I read that I wanted to know more about Vivien’s relationship with her lover, and how they negotiated social situations and taboos, and I was disappointed to be left in the dark about that aspect of Vivien’s life. However, that disappointment was overmatched by my interest in Claire’s fascination with Jackie Kennedy. I’m a New Englander, but I’ve never felt the affection for the Kennedy family that the rest of Boston perpetually evinces. It wasn’t until I read this book that I came up with a possible explanation for why women loved Jackie: her life, on the outside, at least, was the best, materially speaking, a housewife in 1960 could wish for. Jackie was beautiful, cultured, spoke French, married a handsome man, had two adorable children, and was never in danger of running out of money. The reality of her situation was different, of course, but I suspect that her presence in the White House gave women who felt stifled at home something to aspire to as they engaged with the parameters of their lives. But that’s just a theory.
Have you read Comfort or The Obituary Writer? What did you think?