‘Rose had told Claire once that men had affairs to stay married, and women had affairs to get out of their marriages.”
So says one of Ann Hood’s characters in “The Obituary Writer,” a novel about one woman who gives her heart only to have it silenced and another who chooses stability over love, then regrets it. In alternating chapters, Hood tells the stories of Claire and Vivien, narratives set more than 40 years apart, which at first seem to have little in common but are joined in the characters’ hunger for belonging.
In 1961, Claire is a stifled housewife who is pregnant with a child that may not be her husband’s. JFK has just been elected, and the nation’s sense of possibility brings Claire’s dearth of options into sharp relief. As Hood bluntly points out, “Claire came from a generation of women who did not question things.” Claire has learned from her mother what a woman should know: “how to swim, skate, and ride a bike,” to never swear in front of a man, to live on a budget and make hamburger six ways, to always let the man drive, to get up before her husband to put her face on and make his breakfast, and to never refuse her husband’s sexual advances.
Claire’s husband is a fussbudget who calls her silly “Clairezy,” is mean to waitresses, wears rubber galoshes over his wingtips and, we’re told twice, wears his tie in a Windsor knot. He probably even voted for Nixon. In any case, he wants his “life to be easy. My wife to make everything around me smooth.”
And so far, Claire has acquiesced to his demands. But now she is pining for her lover, Miles, who volunteered with her at a JFK campaign office. Unlike her husband, Miles listens to her, which, rather expectedly, makes her feel “reckless and alive.” Claire’s husband knows about the affair and has not decided if he can forgive her. All she can do is wait. After all, “a woman who’d had an affair and been caught, had no choice but to hope her husband forgave her and would let her stay.”
As Claire agonizes about her baby’s delivery (and paternity), Vivien Lowe serves almost as a midwife for the departed. Despairing people turn up on her doorstep and beg her to write obituaries for their dead loved ones. Vivien’s story is set in 1919, 13 years after the San Francisco earthquake in which her married lover, David, disappeared. Vivien comforts others with “the language of grief,” though she denies her loss with the hope that David may still be alive and suffering from amnesia. Vivien’s obits, which Hood wisely never shows, sound like short stories that she composes after sitting with the bereaved. When they’re done telling her facts about the deceased, their birth dates, degrees, jobs and accomplishments, she asks them to “Tell me about your loved one.” That, Vivien says, is how “we always got to the truth.”
But truth is tricky and most elusive when we’re applying it to ourselves. Vivien is living life at double remove; she has settled for a life of waiting and of living out not her own loss but the losses of others. In a startling compliment, one of the grief-stricken tells Vivien: “I came because of what you did when Elliott Mann died. Do you remember that obituary you wrote? Why, people went up to his wife for weeks afterwards saying that after reading it, they felt they knew him better than when he was alive.”
Being known better after you’re dead sounds like a warning against unlived lives that both Claire and Vivien should heed. Though the ending is somewhat predictable, this is a beautifully structured, deeply empathic book that reminds the reader that a life of waiting is a life wasted. Or, as Randall Jarrell observed, “the ways we miss our lives are life.”
Rowland’s novel “The Transcriptionist” will be published next year.
THE OBITUARY WRITER
By Ann Hood
Norton. 292 pp. $26.95