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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: The Obituary Writer

Jim McKeown

Two women separated by over 40 years have a surprising connection.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I met Ann Hood back in 1989 at an American Booksellers Association Convention.  Her line was not long, but the novel she signed seemed intriguing.  I liked it, but it did not overwhelm me.  Recently, I stumbled upon The Obituary Writer published in 2013.  I decided to take another look.

The novel opens on the day in 1961 when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president.  Claire is a young wife and mother, struggling with her loveless marriage to Peter, who works at the Pentagon.  Claire has had an affair, and may be carrying her lover’s child.  Vivien Lowe, an obituary writer in San Francisco in 1919, searches for her lover, who disappeared in the Earthquake of 1906.  These women have a surprising connection.  The book alternates chapters between Claire and Vivien, and Ann Hood kept me entranced wondering about that connection not apparent until the final pages.

Claire seems a character out of the TV series, Mad Men.  She smokes and drinks with abandon, even when she knows she is pregnant.  Hood writes, “[I]n mid-June, during those first humid days when the air in Virginia hangs thick.  School was coming to an end, and from her kitchen window Claire could see the bus stop at the corner and the neighborhood children […] Their school bags dragged along the sidewalk; their catcher’s mitts drooped.  Jump ropes trailed behind a small group of girls, as if even they were too hot. // […] Claire smiled.  Her hands in the yellow rubber gloves dipped into the soapy dishwater as if on automatic.  Wash.  Rinse.  Set in the drainer to dry.  Repeat.  The kitchen smelled of the chocolate cake cooling on the sill in front of her.  And faintly of her cigarette smoke, and the onions she’d fried and added to the meatloaf.  Upstairs, Kathy napped, clutching her favorite stuffed animal, Mimi, a worn and frayed rabbit.” (13) 

Vivien on the other hand, is single and writes obituaries for friends and neighbors.  Hood writes, “Vivien Lowe, usually did not know her clients.  [… But] They were all very much like Mrs. Marjorie Benton, who sat across from her on the small deep purple loveseat.  […] The office looked like a sitting room, with its Victorian furniture […], the loveseat and chairs and ornate, beaded lamps.  The obituary writer lived above her office, in one large room […].  Even though they did not know it, Vivien knew that grieving people needed food and something to quench their thirst.  So she always put out a small plate of cheese and crackers, or cookies, or fruit.  She always offered her clients a drink.  Cool water, hot tea, even a glass of wine” (28-29).

I remember those days, the Kennedy inauguration, my mother washing dishes in the sink.  Stay-at-home moms were the norm.  Ann Hood, in The Obituary Writer, paints a vivid portrait of those times, and I am glad I have reconnected with her work.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at RabbitReader.blogspot.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!