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“The Obituary Writer” by Ann Hood is an engrossing novel that brings the year 1960 to life. Claire, who lives in a suburb near Arlington, Va., with her husband, Peter, has been campaigning for John F. Kennedy and is enraptured with everything to do with Jackie. She lives in the suburbs with her husband and baby daughter.
Claire, like most housewives of that era, is living her life to please her husband. She exchanges recipes with the neighbor ladies and enters pools on what color Jackie will wear for the inauguration. But something is missing.
Her mother always told her a woman should marry a good steady man who will support her. She should never disagree with his decisions. If a woman wanted “bubbles,” her mother would say, she should drink ginger ale. So when Claire meets Miles at campaign headquarters, she is blindsided by unexpected feelings of excitement.
Vivien Lowe’s story takes place some 40 years earlier in 1919. The novel switches from Claire to Vivien and back, comparing the women’s lives. For Vivien, death and grieving are a part of daily life: The Great War has ended with an outbreak of the horrifying flu epidemic affecting much of the world at that time, and Vivien’s boyfriend disappeared in the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.
She has been reading journals on amnesia ever since, just hoping one day David would show up.
Vivien is so consumed by her grief that she finds comfort in writing obituaries for the local newspaper. Her married friend Lotte tries to get her to move forward.
That was not love, she tells Vivien; what Vivien had with David was infatuation. “Love is worrying together and enduring each other’s moods and smelly socks.” So Vivien at 36 is an old maid, a “spinster,” who does not see all the decent men who want to court her.
So, this novel asks, what is love? “The Obituary Writer” allows the reader to explore this question through the lives of two women living at different times in American history, who, as the novel unfolds, become connected.
Women’s lives, the reader sees, have changed dramatically in the United States over time, especially regarding the relationship between freedom and responsibility.
On a lighter note, even the recipes recounted by the author are entertaining; in 1960 women were mixing pre-prepared foods to form something they called “homemade.”
The year 1960 was, in many ways, the beginning of a new era.