THE OBITUARY WRITER is a beautifully written, realistic literary romance focusing on women's issues and foundations of intimate relationships. Bestselling author Ann Hood explores society's expectations of women during the JFK era, at a time when divorce was socially unacceptable, especially for couples who seemed outwardly ideal --- like John F. Kennedy and Jackie, a pair who appear repeatedly in the book as the public obsession of many women, even while the two obviously harbored their own secrets.
The foundations of the era's "traditional" marital relationships seem, by today's standards, to be based on peer pressure, stability and propriety rather than opportunities for genuine connection and individual identity. Hood presents an interesting idea surrounding this: that traditional philosophies about men and women were the reason couples became trapped in bad marriages leading to affairs but without ending in divorce. The question follows: Have modern philosophies and relationships really changed so much? Perhaps the answer depends on where you live and how you were raised. And maybe the potential of your relationships depends on personal philosophies.
"THE OBITUARY WRITER is a wonderful novel with pensive themes, presented creatively and interestingly. It is an easy read with a great flow and varied topics that draw readers in: sex, psychology, love, loss, and philosophies about relationships."
The first protagonist in the novel is Claire, an ordinary housewife whose every habit revolves around her husband's expectations. Peter is the image of the ideal '60s husband: attractive, social, masculine, dependable, successful, anti-emotional, an upholder of traditional values and norms, highly political in his views but never questioning anything too highly. He even votes in the "proper ways" and expects his wife to tow the line and vote with his ideas. Claire feels that Peter doesn't truly care about anyone else's thoughts or feelings, and has become an expert at agreeing with him even while she hides her derision for conformity. The two represent a perfectly dysfunctional mirror of one another, whose behavior allows the dysfunction to continue indefinitely.
As a result, the two have a seemingly regular, happy life, complete with a beautiful child, a lovely home, stable finances, and a group of very superficial "couples friends" who make get-togethers seem uninspired but somehow manage to keep a constant presence anyway. The goal seems to be upholding the proper image rather than really knowing anyone. Claire feels more miserable each day while Peter doesn't realize it. Yet Claire is equally guilty for allowing herself to become the perfect pretender. While she instinctively knows the truth, Claire puts on airs of happiness. Their marriage spirals into disaster when Claire finally succumbs to a passionate affair with a married man she and Peter are both acquainted with. Their inner world fractures with Claire questioning whether she can go on and Peter still trying to ignore reality.
Vivien is the second protagonist, a different kind of woman from Claire who seems more hopeful, honest and respectable but very complex --- openly giving to others while she hides herself under society's norms, yet finding herself eventually able to break away from conformity. Vivien is a gifted writer whose claim to fame is creating uniquely affecting obituaries for people around the country who flock to her on behalf of loved ones, simply because Vivien writes about the essence of the person rather than creating a standard obituary. She doesn't feel truly happy until she meets a special man who she falls in love with seemingly instantly, who appears on the surface to share the depth of her connection. But David is married. Vivien feels hopelessly drawn to him, even though he's a perfect stranger, precisely because he's able to easily see through her public façade. But what does that really mean?
As Vivien's affair progresses, she finds herself becoming unconcerned with many social norms and learns to follow her heart without caring what people think about it. The question is: Does either of these women truly know and love the man they've chosen?
THE OBITUARY WRITER is a wonderful novel with pensive themes, presented creatively and interestingly. It is an easy read with a great flow and varied topics that draw readers in: sex, psychology, love, loss, and philosophies about relationships. Female readers who enjoy literature or history will find a lot to think about and talk about here, and it would serve book clubs well to discuss this deeply meaningful work.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on June 19, 2013